In PA we mostly don't have a voucher system. Okay, there have been ongoing voucher shenanigans in the Republic of Philadelphia with the DOJ on one side and charters on another and Eric Cantor, champion of Keeping the Federal Gummint Out Of Local matters, on another, but the school business there is its own special animal. In the rest of Pennsylvania (or as those of us who live there call it, "Pennsylvania"), we don't have a traditional voucher program. Except--
Except for cyber schools. Any PA student can drop out of his actual school and sign up for a cyber school, and his home district will be forced to fork over his per-capita $$ (around 10K on average for non-special students, about twice that for special needs students). So when it comes to cyber schools, PA is operating a voucher system in everything but name.
This system has been around for a while. There may be some data, but for reasons I'll get to, I'm not even going to bother looking it up. I do know how the system looks on the ground for the teachers I know.
Here are some of the students served by cybers in PA:
1) A student with a set of individual circumstances and needs that are better met by a cyber school situation than by the bricks-and-mortar school.
2) A student whose parents are tired of paying truancy fines.
3) A student who is tired of all that stupid homework and having to pay attention and taking tests.
4) A student who wants to be free to pursue his own muse, without the terrible constrictions of schedule and other peoples' demands.
5) A student who has trouble getting along with other students.
The first type of student is the reason that cybers should absolutely NOT be wiped from the face of the earth. He will benefit from cyber school greatly, finish school, and earn a degree. Cyber schools are a brilliant and valuable resource for this student. I don't want to minimize that value for a second.
All the rest of these students will be back next year, one year behind. Whose records they hurt will depend on a fun side-effect of the system-- periodically people in guidance offices will sit down at their computers and try to fend cyber attempts to pawn off failing students before they "count." It's a sort of reverse ebay auction where the loser has to count Johnny McCyberfail against their enrollment/success/graduation numbers.
So what do I think about the effect of voucher schools? The free market competition is supposed to make everybody raise their game. Is that working? In a word, no.
Cybervouchers in PA have realized my worst nightmare about what cybers would mean, while providing the proof of the following equation:
Mandatory purchase of X + people who don't want X = large market for bad versions of X.
If Congress passed a law requiring every household to own a coffeemaker, even the people who hate coffee, there would instantly be a huge market for coffee makers that surfed the net and grilled cheese sandwiches and played video games, but just barely made bad coffee (just enough to meet federal requirements).
There is a fair-sized market share of people who don't really want to go to school, or who want to go but not have to work much, or who want to spend the whole week in church, or who want to just play ball, or who want to go for an hour in the afternoon. Choice proponents will argue that public schools are failing to effectively woo these customers. But just as cable channels learned that survival came not from the pursuit of excellence, but by a rush to the lowest common denominator, vouchers open the door to operators who can use lots of appeals other than, "We'll educate you real good." Schools are poorly positioned to compete with day spas for students who would rather not crack a book.
And every one of those non-schools will take money away from public schools. The other thing we've learned in PA is that a poorly regulated voucher system can suck the blood right out of local schools. In my own district, we lost around $800K to send 72 students to cyber school in the same year that we closed two elementary schools to try to realize savings of, you guessed it, around $800K.
Choice advocates have used a wide array of marketing talking points over the year. Currently we seem to favor the notion that by competing, choice schools are really creating --well, we could call it evolutionary pressure if we believed in evolution-- for public schools to get better. That's just nuts, and not just because voucher schools play by different rules on a different field with hand-picked students.
Voucher systems promise that we can run multiple school systems for the exact same money that we previously used to run one system. That's like saying, "Hey, our household budget is getting a little tight. We'd better buy a second house."
So happy school choice week. As we're bombarded by school choice propaganda this week, just hold your nose and think about the day all these school profiteers end their education tourism and move on to their next money-making scheme. It can't come too soon.