Teachers’ union labels school choice policies as ‘schemes’

(And no, they are not using the non-pejorative British definition of scheme, which means a plan or system for doing or organizing something.)

In a new attack on educational freedom and efforts to ensure access to a good education isn’t just for the rich, the National Education Association recently sent a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means telling legislators to not support legislation built around “voucher-inspired schemes” that “rob our nation’s public schools” of “scarce funding and resources.”

A long-time protector of their government school monopoly, the national teachers’ union wrote that school choice policies, such as K-12 education savings accounts and tax-credit scholarship programs, are “voucher-inspired schemes” that “erode public education, the foundation of our democracy.”

In its letter, the union bulleted out several tired arguments against school choice that have been repeatedly debated and disproven.

Before I address the union’s talking points, here are some telling poll results on school choice:

  • 75 percent of district school teachers support K-12 education savings accounts, according to a national poll by Morning Consult during spring 2023. (In fact, a higher percentage of district school teachers voiced support for this school choice policy than open enrollment!)
  • 79 percent of black parents with school-aged children support vouchers and 78 percent support education savings accounts, according to a spring 2023 Morning Consult poll.
  • 74 percent of voters in Minnesota support school choice, according to American Experiment’s spring 2023 Thinking Minnesota Poll. Sixty-one percent of Minnesotans who identify as Democrats support school choice.
  • 72 percent of registered voters support school choice, according to a poll by RealClear Opinion Research during spring 2022. Support was high across party lines (68 percent of Democrats) and among communities of color (77 percent of Hispanics, 70 precent of blacks).
  • 76 percent of voters who identify as Democrat support K-12 education savings accounts, according to a poll by OnMessage Inc., in February 2022. Eighty-four percent of black respondents voiced support and 85 percent of Hispanic respondents.
  • 76 percent of Minnesota school parents and 71 percent of Minnesotans support education savings accounts, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.

School choice programs and student success

There is “no evidence of greater student success” from school choice policies, the teachers’ union claims.

Here is a 2023 analysis of 187 studies on private school choice programs that found 84 percent have positive effects on everything from student test scores (both those who participate in the program and those who remain in public schools) to educational attainment, school safety, and helping schools become more integrated.

Here is a 2022 study of Ohio’s largest voucher program, which analyzed 13 years of data and found that the program improved district achievement.

Here is a 2021 meta-analytic and systematic review drawing from all rigorous U.S. studies on private school vouchers that shows participation in a school choice program increases both student reading and math achievement in statistically significant ways.

Here is a 2020 study on Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program that found the program benefits students who remain at their traditional public school.

Here are 26 studies out of 28 on the positive impact of school choice on public schools that have been conducted over decades.

Education spending and student achievement

“Where there is conclusive evidence,” the union’s letter continues, “is that investing more money in public education improves student achievement.”

Below is a chart from my 2020 report on education spending and achievement. As I write here, when states’ per pupil spending is paired with academic achievement results, there is an absence of direct correlation between spending and achievement.

How money is spent matters far greater than how much money is spent. Another case in point is the chart below, where I track Minnesota per pupil spending over the years and student achievement.

Public accountability

“No public accountability. Private schools have almost complete autonomy with regard to how they operate: who they teach, what they teach, how they teach, how (if at all) they measure student achievement, how they manage their finances, and what they are required to disclose to parents and the public,” claims the the teachers’ union.

Private schools are regulated in all 50 states; they have to provide healthy and safe learning environments, meet compulsory attendance requirements, and teach core, mandated subjects like math, English, science and history. Additionally, “most private schools are required to undertake financial audits and evaluate student performance using standardized tests,” according to EdChoice.

In Wisconsin, for example, voucher schools must be accredited, obey all laws that apply to Wisconsin private schools, follow state accounting standards, file independent audits, comply with health and safety codes and comply with civil rights laws.

For another example, Florida schools that wish to participate in a special education voucher program must hire teachers who have a bachelor’s degree, three years of experience or special qualifications. Schools must demonstrate fiscal soundness, comply with anti-discrimination laws, meet health and safety codes, maintain a physical location in the state, provide parents with a written explanation of their students’ yearly progress, give the Department of Education any documentation required for a student’s participation and complete a yearly five-page notarized questionnaire covering issues, such as the number of teachers and food safety inspections.

Additionally, the attacks against private school accountability are made under the assumption that public schools are accountable. As Michael McShane reports, “traditional public schools are not financially accountable,” “democratically accountable,” or “educationally accountable.”

When it comes to “financial accountability,” public schools have been disastrously opaque, failing to disclose how dollars are actually spent and whether they are used to educate students. Opacity is a great tool for schools and districts: If no one can see where the money goes, it’s easy to convince the community that there just isn’t enough money.

“Democratic accountability” relies on school board elections, which are problematic. School board elections are held off-cycle to drive down turnout. Bond elections use unclear language to muddy what they are actually asking of taxpayers. And the wishes of organized interests routinely supersede those of the body politic.

Traditional public school advocates hold up the extensive testing and data-gathering systems that states operate and the ostensible consequences linked to those systems as evidence that public schools are held accountable for the education they provide. Even a cursory peek under the hood of these systems shows that they are so byzantine and manipulable that few, if any, schools ever actually meet with serious consequences for their poor performance.

Student support and protections

“Students with special needs who attend private schools lose many rights granted by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),” claims the teachers’ union. “They also may not have the protection of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) the law requires for students with special needs.”

Numerous school choice programs across the country limit eligibility to students with special needs. And education savings accounts often allow the program dollars to be used for special education services, therapies, etc. In Minnesota, students attending nonpublic schools may receive special education services through “shared time” arrangements with public school districts.

Costs and legality

“Subsidizing private, often religious, schools with taxpayer dollars is not just more expensive, it violates the fundemental principle of separation of church and state,” claims the teachers’ union.

The average dollars public schools spend per student tend to be significantly greater than nonpublic school tuition. In fact, school choice programs actually save states money, even when accounting for public schools “fixed” costs, such as building maintenance, according to a study by the Friedman Foundation. And an overwhelming number of empirical studies confirm that educational choice programs do not have a negative fiscal impact on public schools and taxpayers.

Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous state courts have weighed in many times over the years on the legality of school choice programs, holding “that religiously neutral educational choice programs that give parents a genuine choice as to where to send their children to school pass constitutional muster,” writes the Institute for Justice.

According to the Legal Defense & Education Center’s guide on landmark litigation affecting school choice: “Courts have been clear that school choice funds education for children by relinquishing government control over expenditure of those funds to parents, who make private and independent choices of schools and educational resources that best fit their children.”

If you are a Minnesota educator who is part of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers’ union, you are paying dues to the National Education Association and its efforts to keep students from accessing the learning environment that works best for them.

Photo credit: Ron Cogswell, Flickr