The ugly truth about school vouchers

Thanks to Kelly McMahon for cross-posting her letter to the editor about a policy goal for some influential Iowa Republicans. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Advertisements began airing on TV and radio stations across Iowa promoting the creation of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). The commercials use the typical conservative think-tank, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) message to sell them. Funders of the commercials don’t want Iowan’s to know what an ESA means to the future of Iowa’s public schools and to taxpayers.

In 2002, I moved from Iowa to teach for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), the birthplace of school vouchers. In 1990 vouchers were sold as the panacea to the challenges of educating children in Milwaukee. The reality is that vouchers have done nothing to improve the quality of education for the nearly 30,000 students attending schools that are a part of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

During my first year of teaching for MPS, I learned about the influx of students after the state mandatory attendance date, otherwise known as the 3rd Friday. On the following Monday, parents began showing up to register their children for school. Parents needed to find a new school for their child due to him/her having behavior problems; not following homework requirements; or struggling academically (the child had or needed an Individual with Education Plan). So they were forced to leave their voucher school and return to public school.

Unfortunately, the money the voucher school received from the state when the student started there did not follow the child to the public school.

The reality of the infamous “After 3rd Friday” influx of students wasn’t what surprised me the most. It was the lack of quality control of schools that operated under the program and the lack of teacher qualifications.

When I began teaching for MPS, the only requirement for teachers and administrators at voucher schools was holding a G.E.D. Schools did not have to be accredited, school testing was not required and there was a lack of adequate financial and attendance oversight. It is no wonder that 20 voucher schools closed during my nine years as an educator with MPS. Unfortunately, the schools closed mid-year, giving parents less than a week notice to find a new school. Another 20 voucher schools in Milwaukee have closed since I moved back to Iowa in 2011.

Wisconsin has had almost no success in introducing accountability and transparency for voucher schools. In a compromise, voucher schools were eventually required to hire educators and principals that held Bachelor Degrees (still no requirement for actual training to be educators), and a study was to be conducted that compared voucher school students taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to MPS students taking the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (not an apple to apple comparison).

The Milwaukee Parental Choice program created devastating financial hardships for the students of MPS and the taxpayers of Milwaukee. The citizens of Milwaukee were forced to pay for two school systems, despite not ever being allowed to vote if this was something they truly wanted.

The MPS system was slowly defunded by the voucher program. Most elementary schools did not have art, music, gym, school nurses, and most schools lacked guidance counselors at all levels. However, the data showed that MPS still outperformed the voucher schools when some very limited accountability for voucher schools was put in place. Neighborhood public schools were forced to close due to lack of enough students enrolled, which undermined the strength of the communities children grew up in.

There is no non-partisan research that supports school vouchers as having a positive influence on student learning. Even still, the lowest performing vouchers schools (which perform well below MPS schools) do not face prospect of closure, unlike the lowest performing MPS schools, which might be turned into a voucher school.

Now, ALEC and Americans for Prosperity want to bring vouchers to Iowa. Financially, Iowa can’t afford to pay for two school systems when lawmakers say they can only afford a 1.11 percent SSA increase for public schools for the 2017-18 school-year.

Before the Iowa Legislature begins to discuss ESA’s, it first needs to increase accountability in homeschooling laws, which are amongst the weakest laws in the country.

Iowa doesn’t know how many children are being homeschooled because, the Independent Private Instruction (IPI) Home School program allows parents to avoid registering/enrolling their child in a home school program with the local school district or an association. There are no accountability measures put in place for IPI homeschooling to ensure parents are educating their children, or providing a home free of abuse or neglect.

From my experience as a teacher in Cedar Rapids, children are falling through the cracks, and school districts can do nothing about IPI home schooling children. ESA’s are not in the best interest of Iowa’s future. Fully-funded public schools that serve all children are the answer.

Kelly McMahon, Cedar Rapids

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  • Thank you Kelly McMahon

    I don’t follow education issues closely, so I really appreciate this horrifying reality check. I would never have guessed, for example, that voucher schools were allowed to just kick “problem students” back to the public system. Unbelievable!

    • I also had no idea

      that was common. But I know that private schools often can’t or don’t want to accommodate children with learning disabilities or other issues.

  • Quoting Diane Ravitch (

    The response to the current crisis in education tends to reflect two different worldviews. On one side are those who call themselves “reformers.” The reformers believe that the schools can be improved by more testing, more punishment of educators (also known as “accountability”), more charter schools, and strict adherence to free-market principles in relation to employees (teachers) and consumers (students).

    On the other are those who reject the reformers’ proposals and emphasize the importance of addressing the social conditions—especially poverty—that are the root causes of poor academic achievement. Many of these people—often parents in the public school system, experienced teachers, and scholars of education—favor changes based on improving curriculum, facilities, and materials, improving teacher recruitment and preparation, and attending to the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children. The critics of test-based accountability and free-market policies do not have a name, so the reformers call them “anti-reform.” It might be better to describe them as defenders of common sense and sound education. . . . .

    When test scores become the goal of education by which students and schools are measured, then students in the bottom half—who will inevitably include disproportionate numbers of children who are poor, children with disabilities, children who barely speak English—will be left far behind, stigmatized by their low scores. If we were to focus on the needs of children, we would make sure that every pregnant woman got good medical care and nutrition, since many children born to women without them tend to have learning disabilities. We would make sure that children in poor communities have high-quality early childhood education so that they arrive in school ready to learn. We would insist that their teachers be trained to support their social, emotional, and intellectual development and to engage local communities on behalf of their children, as Dr. James Comer of Yale University has insisted for many years. And we would have national policies whose goal is to reduce poverty by expanding economic opportunity.

  • No worries... At least until next year

    It looks like ESA legislation died during funnel week.

    But I read the bill and even before funnel week, it was DOA because it was essentially crafted to do nothing for no one except people with children already in private school. 1). It allotted grants to students good for about 40%-50% of public school per pupil costs. 2). The grants could be used only at ACCREDITED private schools in Iowa. If the money doesn’t cover the entire tuition, there was no guarantee that a student would be allowed to use an additional scholarship to cover the rest of tuition/expenses. This would be a huge deterrent to students attempting to enroll in private schools because their out of pocket costs after the ESA grant could be more than $6000. 3). Only homeschooled students using the CPI option (not IPI) qualified for the grant. Additionally, there was no guarantee that the grant would cover the parents’ chosen curriculum (very, very important for parents homeschooling a child with special needs) or a lot of the other expenses that homeschooling parents accrue. Like printer ink. 4). Grant recipients could use any excess funds for higher education here in Iowa, but only within six years (or less) of graduation and only at specific institutions of higher learning. Funds would have to stay in the ESA account until spent. If the student returns to public school before graduation or if the ESA program dissolves, it seems that any money in the account would just evaporate. 5). There were few protections against fraud, or abuse or neglect of students.

    So until the proponents of ESAs can craft a bill that would clearly benefit their intended audience, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.

    • you may be right

      and I would welcome a guest post by you laying out this argument.

      However, nothing is ever truly dead until the session is over.

  • Thanks, but

    Thanks for the testimony but please don’t use the Republican terminology here. These are not saving accounts. They are not like retirement savings accounts or health savings accounts despite their similar name.
    This plan spends public money on poorly regulated private schools. It undermines our education system. It does not save it.