Wednesday, May 30, 2018

PA: Pushing Super Vouchers Again

Some Pennsylvania legislators are bound and determined to sell vouchers to the state-- and not just regular vouchers, but super-duper awesome vouchers, complete with poison pill for public schools.

Wait? Isn't This Old News

Well, yes, it kind of is. The bill is SB 2, Education Savings Accounts for Underperforming Schools, and it has been trapped in the legislature's (Anti-)Education committee for a while. It was up for a vote last October when it was still a terrible idea, but it failed, once again, to get out of committee.

But you know the old saying-- when life gives you lemons, trade them for pop-tarts. Erie County GOP Senator Dan Laughlin has been a staunch opponent of the bill and the one vote that kept SB 2 from making it out of commitee; this is not surprising, has Erie public schools are a good case study in how school choice and bad policy can gut a public school system. But in December, Laughlin switched to the Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee, and he was replaced by GOP Senator Rich Alloway.

Alloway is his own kind of special. Recently he came out in favor Armed Volunteer Civilian Militias to "harden" schools and prevent shootings. Because any shmoe off the street who wants to walk around schools with a gun will be a big help.

Oh-- and Alloway is one of the co-sponsors or SB 2. Which explains why it has now made it out of committee and will come before the Pennsylvania senate in the not-too-distant future.

What's Super-Duper About It?

Vouchers are a policy idea that will not die; let's just give every student a check and let them enroll at whatever school they want to (and let's not talk about the fact that they don't really get to decide because top private schools are expensive and all private schools are free to accept students or not for whatever reason).

But many reformsters see another end game. Why bother with school at all? Let students purchase an English class from one vendor and a math class from another. Get history lessons on line paid for by your educational voucher card account.

ESAs make that splintered version of "education" possible. Instead of saying, "Here's a tuition voucher to pay your way to the school of your choice," the state says, "Here's a card pre-loaded with your education account money. Spend your special edu-bucks however you want to."

What Exactly Is In The Bill?

SB 2 is a measly sixteen pages; I'll read it so you don't have to, but you could read it yourself easily enough. There has been some fiddling with the bill since it first shambled into the light of day, and most of the fiddling is not major stuff. But here are some highlights.

Some Fun Definition Stuff

I always enjoy the definitions portion of bills. Okay, not really, but it's an interesting place to see some assumptions laid out.

For instance, "low achieving public school" is a school that ranks in the lower 15% of PA schools. This is great for voucher fans, because even if every school in Pennsylvania was super-awesome, there would still be a lower 15%.

Incidentally, that 15% is measured now not on the annual assessment, but on the annual state achievement test-- which means we now have a new definition of what the PSSA and Keystones are supposed to be (spoiler alert-- they aren't really achievement tests). The law also allows other tests that the state may later foist on schools will count.

The bill also specifies that the lower 15% of public schools will not include charter schools, cyber-charters, or vocational technical schools. That's important for reformsters because just one page later, the definition of "public school" is "a school district, charter school, cyber charter school, regional charter school, intermediate unit or a vocational-technical school." In other words, the law enshrines what we've seen frequently with charters-- they are public schools when it suits them to be, and not
public schools when it suits them not to be.

Who Can Play

One of the problems with many voucher systems is that they funnel tax dollars to private schools via students who were never in the public system to begin with. In other words, vouchers could bed law on Tuesday and on Wednesday, millions of dollars would be sucked out of public school systems without the movement of a single student. Every student who was already in private school anyway would suddenly get a state subsidy.

The newest version of the bill tries to clamp down on that a bit. Previously your child was not eligible for an ESA unless they had spent at least one semester in public school ever. Now that student must spend at least a semester in public school "preceding the establishment of an education savings account."

One fun detail-- once you are in the ESA system, it follows you wherever you go. If you move to a new district area, you still get your edu-bucks, only now they're taken from a school that wasn't even "failing." As I read it, this has two troubling implications. Imagine these scenarios.

Pat attended a "failing" elementary school, so Pat's family signed up for edu-bucks (which came out of the "failing" school's budget. When Pat grew up, it was time to go to the district middle school-- which was NOT failing. But they will still lose the money associated with Pat, who can continue to grab vouchers.

Wobblebog High had a bad couple of test years and lost a few dozen students (and a half million dollars) to some cyber charters and other edu-scammers. Now WH has turned itself around. But it doesn't matter. Those few dozen students get to stay in the voucher system, and WH still has to contend with the hole in their budget.

What You Can Spend Your Edu-bucks On

This hasn't changed. Edu-bucks can be spent on

1) Tuition and fees charged by any school

2) Textbooks or uniforms. Do I suddenly sense many private schools getting interested in uniforms?

3) Fees for tutoring or "other teaching services."

4) Fees to take a "nationally norm-referenced test." So edu-bucks for SAT.

5) Fees for purchasing a curriculum or instructional materials required to administer same. So edu-bucks can finance your homeschooling. Or your cyber-math class.

6) Special services for students with special needs. I have a bad feeling about this. "Too bad if your child isn't getting necessary and mandated services-- we gave you a voucher and if you screwed it up, well, we've done our part. You're on your own."

7) Other valid educational expenses approved by the department. So, you know, depending on the department's occupants, pretty much whatever.

A Few Guardrails, Sort Of

There are some restrictions. A private school can't be caught giving kickbacks to parents, and they can't be caught charging voucher families more than they charge others.

And there's a whole section about audits and penalties if you get caught trying to game this system.

However, there are also specific requirements that the edu-bucks come with no strings attached. "No commonwealth agency may regulate the education program of a participating entity that accepts a payment from an education savings account..." The program does not "expand the regulatory authority of the State." So the state is specifically forbidden to hold edu-buck funded schools to the laws and regulations that govern public schools.

This has always been a huge problem with ESAs-- deliberate zero oversight. Your tax dollars could be funding a white supremacy curriculum or a flying spaghetti monster religious school and you would not know and the state would not say "Hey, wait a minute!" to the education provider.

In fact, no edu-buck accepting school or program can be required to alter their "creed, practices, admissions policy or curriculum to accept school age children " whose parents have edu-bucks in hand. In other words, as some of us keep saying, this is not a school choice program at all, because the choice ultimately rests with the school, which can reject your child for being the wrong race, the wrong religion, the wrong gender orientation, or for having special needs of any kind.

ESAs allow public dollars collected from taxpayers to be used to discriminate without restraint against some of those same taxpayers. That's not okay.

So The Problems Are...?

A lack of oversight. If a family decided to spend ESA money on an X-Box, is there any agency that would 1) notice they were doing it and 2) tell them not to? The amount of oversight required for such a program would be huge-- unless you just wanted to hand over all those taxpayer dollars and not make any attempt to check up on them.

Enshrining discrimination. The law is clear-- if you're running, say, a segregation academy, and you want to hoover up some of that sweet taxpayer cash, the government is expressly forbidden to tell you that you have to stop discriminating first. The same is true if you are running Flat Earth Elementary School-- no gummint agency is allowed to tell you that you have to shape up and stop teaching falsehoods if you want to get your taxpayer dollars.

No real choice. Even if you sincerely believe in the power of choice to improve education, this is not choice. Just because you have a fistful of edu-bucks, that doesn't mean that any school has to accept your student. Students will not choose schools; schools will choose students.

The primary beneficiaries will be people who were doing just fine. No poor families are going to get their children into Fancypants Prep with a voucher that pays only a fraction of the tuition costs.

The further destruction of public education. Yes, this will draw money away from the support of public education (you know-- the place where the vast majority of students go to get an education), and that financial gutting is bad. But ESAs also set the stage for the destruction of the very idea of school, replacing an important public institution with an assortment of vendors hawking various edu-flavored mini-competency badges.

And ESAs also set the stage for government abdicating its responsibility for providing a decent education for all students. Caveat emptor, baby-- we gave you a voucher and if somehow that didn't end up with a decent education for your kid because you were scammed or defrauded or just unable to navigate a confusing marketplace, well, hey, that's your problem. The state's responsibility ended when it handed you your stack of edu-bucks. Of course, in such a system, the wealthy will do just fine, secure on a cushion of their own wealth. It's the poor, with their tiny margin for economic error, who will suffer. But hey-- we gave them a voucher.

What To Do?

PA SB 2 is headed for the Senate floor in Harrisburg. You need to locate your senator and explain to him why this bill is a bad idea. Get your friends and neighbors to also explain. This really needs to not be a law. This is a bad idea; the assault on public education should bother progressives, and conservatives should be bothered by a bill that proposes using taxpayer dollars with no accountability in sight.

P.S. If someone is in agreement that this is a lousy idea for a law, you might note that Governor Tom Wolf has promised to veto it, and the Governor Wanna-be Scott Wagner is a co-sponsor.









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