This is the fifth year in a row (at least) that we’ve seen a debate over Vouchers/Educational Savings Account schemes in the Idaho legislature. A few of the major questions raised by opponents of the various proposals have been:
- Would significant resources be diverted from public schools to fund the voucher/ESA program?
- How would vouchers affect enrollment, achievement, and funding in Idaho’s rural schools?
- Would rural school districts with no private schools end up losing resources to urban private schools?
- Would students accepting vouchers/ESA’s achieve as well in new educational environments?
- Would funding be provided for students already enrolled in private schools?
We think a serious study of these issues alone would result in saying “NO” to voucher/ESA proposals. But…
One of the most curious issues in the ongoing debate about vouchers/ESA’s in the Gem State is the refusal of the legislators who bring and support the bills to require any form of fiscal or educational accountability for private schools whose clientele accept those funds.
Idaho’s private schools have always operated independently and served a small segment of the state’s student population. They have made their own rules apart and separate from any public oversight. And parents who send their children to private schools have knowingly and willingly accepted the financial responsibility associated with their school choice. That would change under a voucher/ESA system, but some legislators want to provide the funds without any strings – no accountability!
Before we consider distributing tax dollars to private schools, let’s make sure that they would have the same accountability requirements that are applied to public schools.
Any legislation proposing the use of public funds for private use should require schools to:
a) Conduct comprehensive financial audits and provide data to the public detailing the receipt and use of taxpayer funds related to voucher/ESA programs.
b) Open their doors and accept Special Education students, who are eligible for the state vouchers/ESA’s. Idaho’s public schools are required to serve these students and to develop individualized education plans for each student based on their disability and educational need. Private schools using public monies should do the same.
c) Accept students who are recently arrived from foreign countries and who may have difficulty with the English language, and provide appropriate services for those students.
d) Recruit, admit, and track the educational progress of low-income students in numbers similar to their local public school. Isn’t this one reason given for vouchers, to make their approach to education available to students from poor families?
Recruiting and enrolling students from lower socio-economic strata would represent an effort to use the public’s funds according to the constitutional mandate given to the Idaho legislature…”to create and maintain a general, uniform, and thorough system of free common schools”. Shouldn’t any move to add additional “systems” in the public domain require as much?
e) Administer all assessments to all students as required by state and federal law. These would include the Idaho Standards Achievement Tests (grades 3-8 and 10), the Idaho Reading Indicator (grades k-3), and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (grade 11).
Some legislators have opined that parents provide the necessary evaluations in a private school. We agree that parents should be involved in evaluating school progress (such as in parent-teacher conferences), with the assistance of data from these objective achievement measures.
In this way, the public could see and evaluate student achievement in these schools, while considering the context of poverty and English Learner populations.
Why not require private schools to agree to the same measures required of traditional and charter schools as a condition for accepting taxpayer dollars? After all, transparency and accountability for the use of public funds is not an unrealistic expectation.
This was written by Geoffrey Thomas, Don Coberly and Wil Overgaard. All are retired Idaho school district superintendents.