A voucher by any other name

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A group of fresh-faced, uniform-clad students came to the testifying table one by one before the House Education Finance Committee March 14 to tell members about their education at Cristo Rey High School, a Catholic school in Minneapolis.

Contrasting the Jesuit-run institution with previous public schools they’d attended, the students of various racial backgrounds said it offers personal attention, has boosted their college aspirations and provided the structure and support they need to grow personally and academically.

“It’s been great,” summed up Mohamed Ali, a senior who has participated in the YMCA Youth in Government program, plans to attend college and is grateful for the job experience with local employers that’s part of the curriculum.

The students spoke in support of HF273, which its sponsor, Rep. Kelby Woodard (R-Belle Plaine), calls a “limited scholarship program for low-income families.” Payments up to the amount of the average general education per pupil revenue, currently $5,124, would be made to a student’s parent or guardian and sent to a nonpublic school, where the parent would endorse the check for the school’s use. School participation would be voluntary.

The committee laid the bill over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill. Sen. Sean Nienow (R-Cambridge) sponsors a companion, SF388, which was laid over March 17 by the Senate Education Committee.

The bill resuscitates a debate that highlights fundamental party-line differences over educational philosophy and strategy. Are vouchers an effective way to outsource a job the state hasn’t been able to do, namely, close the achievement gap? Or are they a serious infringement on the public trust to fund a universal education system available to all?

Woodard sees targeted scholarships as a free-market tool expanding parents’ school choices that could improve educational outcomes for at-risk students. The program would take effect only in cities of the first class: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester. Those eligible would be families earning a maximum of 175 percent of the federal poverty level with a child who has spent at least one year in a school ranked as low-performing according to federal guidelines for at least three years.

“These are the kids who are part of the achievement gap,” Woodard said. “We need to educate, not perpetuate.”

DFL lawmakers appreciate Woodard’s goal of tackling educational inequities, but say vouchers are unconstitutional and unnecessary given Minnesota’s existing school choice options such as open enrollment, charter schools and magnet schools.

“The challenge in front of us is to make educational achievement less predictable. We can predict by ZIP code, family income and skin color how a student will do,” said Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls).

Instead of opening an escape hatch for a few students by offering vouchers, Davnie believes the state should invest in targeted services, such as extending school hours or offering summer school for all students who need them. For example, a 2010 report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor found K-8 students who attended extended-time programs at alternative learning centers showed higher-than-expected growth on two standardized assessments compared with other students and national norms.

Michelle Walker, St. Paul Public Schools chief accountability officer, said the district is beginning to close the achievement gap and turn around failing schools by making such investments, paring programs and closing failing schools.

“Despite our progress, we have a long way to go,” she said. “We are not shy at facing our failures and confronting them head on.” She urged members to stay the course by investing in what is beginning to show positive results, not create more options.

Choices abound

Minnesota has been ahead of the curve as the first state to authorize charter schools and was an early adopter of open enrollment, magnet schools and postsecondary enrollment options.

There are also existing federally funded pathways authorized to help students in struggling schools. Under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act – or No Child Left Behind – a student attending a school not making federal proficiency or growth targets may transfer to another school in the same district or receive supplementary education services, such as tutoring, either at a district school or a private facility, according to John Moorse, director of consolidated federal programs with the Education Department. Transportation to a same-district school is funded, but not to a charter or non-district school.

In Minneapolis, about 22,500 students were eligible to change schools under that aegis last year, said Jim Grathwol, the district’s lobbyist, but only 23 families inquired about it and just 11 students did so.

Justice for all

Both sides see their position as one of justice. Woodard believes the bill would give low income parents more equal access to nonpublic education as families with means. He said it’s not unlike an early childhood scholarship program in St. Paul allowing low-income families to choose a high-quality preschool they would not otherwise be able to afford or state grant aid for higher education, which students may use at any higher education institution.

Davnie said a key difference is that the state doesn’t have a constitutional responsibility to provide universal early childhood education or higher education as it does for the K-12 system. Furthermore, taxpayer dollars should not fund schools that discriminate in any way based on religious belief, or that fail to comply with state and federal statutes such as open meeting laws, the Pupil Fair Dismissal Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requiring schools to provide free and equal education access to students with special needs.

HF273 essentially abandons the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a uniform, thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state,” said Teresa Nelson, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

A 2002 United States Supreme Court ruling said Ohio’s voucher program is constitutional because parents may choose sectarian schools or not. Florida’s and Arizona’s supreme courts blocked voucher programs in 2006 and 2009, respectively.

Among other DFL members offering amendments, Rep. Denise Dittrich (DFL-Champlin) unsuccessfully offered one that would have required a nonpublic school receiving scholarship funding to report annually on their finances, governance, staffing, demographics and academic performance measures in the same manner as a charter school.

“We have spent a lot of time, energy and money in the past 15 years in this education system of increasing the accountability and transparency of where we are investing our money. We all do this to benefit children,” she said. “What rises to the top here is that we are still state representatives and our primary job is to allocate funding to different areas of the budget. We need to be very accountable to the taxpayers of this state.”