The Pennsylvania General Assembly is once again considering a voucher bill (HB 2169), which would redirect nearly $144 million of much-needed taxpayer money meant for K-12 public schools to private schools, higher education institutions, and other entities not accountable to the public.
HB2169 would structure a voucher program in PA as follows:
- Eligible students would include those that live within the attendance boundary of a “low-achieving school,” that only students who live within the catchment area of a particular school building would be eligible. There is no income limit for families to receive these funds.
- The voucher could be used to pay tuition at a private or religious school and would include money to pay for books, hardware, internet services, and other educational materials. These funds could also be used to pay for tutoring or costs for evaluation and identification of special needs, even though school districts and intermediate units already provide these services at no cost to families. If all the voucher money is not used prior to high school graduation, this money can be put towards the first two years of higher education.
- The Treasury Department is required to administer the program. It could contract with a third-party administrator but is also authorized to create a payment system that uses a debit card for parents to utilize the voucher money.
- The only academic accountability for schools participating in the voucher program would be a parent satisfaction survey.1
Several states have implemented voucher programs and at this point there has been research and reporting on the impact of such programs. Below, we discuss two main problems with voucher programs found elsewhere. First, voucher programs often have little to no accountability to taxpayers. Secondly, this lack of oversight often leads to waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars as well as the an increase in the number of low-quality schools.
Voucher Programs Often Have Little to No Accountability
Public schools are regulated for a reason. With the spending of taxpayer money, the public wants assurances that this funding is going to good use—for effective, collective, and universal education of our kids. That is why there are standards attached to public education with requirements for teacher qualifications, testing, curriculum, and achievement.
But if HB 2169 were to pass, taxpayer dollars would be redirected to pay for private school education with no such accountability or academic standards. Here are some examples2 of this lack of accountability in other programs:
Insufficient Compliance and Enforcement Mechanisms:Voucher programs often have insufficient compliance and enforcement mechanisms in place to monitor the programs.
- A Washington, DC, voucher program repeatedly failed to develop effective policies and procedures to oversee the program and ensure programs implement the most basic accountability standards. A 2013 report found that the program lacked detail on school compliance and financial accounting, which made it difficult to assess whether schools were abiding by legally required rules and standards. Even if a school were found to be not in compliance, there were no detailed procedures in place to deal with this non-compliance.3
- The state voucher program in Wisconsin spent $139 million in taxpayer funds to private schools that were then barred from the program due to failures to meet basic requirements related to financials, accreditation, student safety and auditing. More than two-thirds of the programs terminated had little to no track record or experience educating kids—these schools had been open for less than five years total. Several of the programs were terminated from the program because they refused to repay overpayments from the state based on projected enrollments that turned out to be too high.4
- Two-thirds of students in Louisiana’s voucher system attended schools that were rated under the state’s assessment system with a “D” or “F.” In many voucher programs, it is up to the parents to compare academic programs, even if there are no clear ways to assess this, with few standards required within private schools that are legally mandated in public schools.5
Because of Little Oversight and Accountability, Vouchers Can Sometimes Fund Poor Quality Schools
Voucher proponents often tout the lack of oversight as a good thing, saying it can lead to greater innovation. But this same lack of oversight and accountability can result in teachers with few qualifications being hired and lack of proper and safe facilities for children to learn in.
- Minimum Qualifications for Teachers: While many voucher programs require minimum qualifications for the teachers at participating private schools, there are some programs that do not even require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree.6
- Schools participating in the Wisconsin voucher program have employed teachers with no teacher credentials or education background.7
- In a Florida school using voucher money, administrators used corporal punishment on students. Teachers were mostly in their 20s, there was no curriculum and very little supplies or books for students. A 17-year-old student with only a learner’s permit, drove other kids to a field trip, falling asleep at the wheel and killing a teacher and a senior.8
- Lack of Proper Facilities:
- In one Florida private school using vouchers, “two-hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store…. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the ‘campus’ as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.”9
- Some Wisconsin schools participating in the voucher program were found to be operating out of car dealerships, old factories, and strip malls.10
Lack of Oversight Often Leads to Waste, Fraud, and Abuse of Taxpayer Dollars
Misspent Taxpayer Funds: There are many examples of voucher programs in which taxpayer funds have been misspent.
- An Arizona Auditor General report found that parents had misused taxpayer funds meant to be used for the state’s school voucher program. The program began as a way to help special needs students find educational services that met their needs; but in 2017, the program was expanded to make all of the state’s public school students eligible to use taxpayer money to fund private school tuition. Funding, which was 90% of the money that would otherwise have gone to the public school, was distributed using state-issued debit cards intended to be used to cover special education expenses like private or religious-school tuition, education-related therapies, and home-school expenses. Partly because the legislature skimped on funding for proper administration of the program, in fiscal year 2018 parents were able to make purchases of more than $700,000 not allowed under the program, including for beauty supplies, sports apparel, and other non-education-related spending. Some parents attempted to withdraw cash from the account and use funds for travel, but these issues were not identified quickly resulting in other misspent funds. Nearly all of these misspent funds were never recouped.11
- Twenty-five out of 38 Florida schools had allegations of fraud substantiated, including hiring staff with criminal records and doctoring attendance documents to show enrollment of students that did not actually attend the school. Funds inappropriately used from the voucher system totaled about $49 million in taxpayer money. In this Florida voucher program, some participating private schools took millions of taxpayer dollars even when there were significant issues with the schools. Some schools were being administered by convicted criminals charged with kidnapping, cocaine dealing, and burglary.12
- The Milwaukee voucher program accounts for 30% of the school district’s size but is fraught with fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars. A Milwaukee school principal and founder of a school benefiting from voucher payments used money from the state voucher payments to buy several Mercedes-Benz cars worth a total of $65,000. He also owed the state nearly $330,000 for 200 checks that were inappropriately cashed, including to families whose children actually never attended the school. Several other schools in Milwaukee were also found to be inappropriately using voucher money.13
- Pandemic money via the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund was spent in many states on public education. But in Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Florida, these funds were spent on the states’ private school voucher programs. In Oklahoma, the governor spent $10 million on private school voucher programs and paid $8 million directly to parents to pay for educational materials and services. Investigations by Oklahoma Watch and the Frontier revealed that $500,000 of these federal education funds were misspent on a variety of things such as televisions, pressure washers, car stereos, smartwatches, Christmas trees, and more. Federal auditors are investigating Oklahoma’s actions, which include implementing barely any safeguards to prevent abuse, not even signing an official government contract with ClassWallet which administers the private school voucher money.14
There are many policy questions the PA General Assembly should carefully consider before passing HB 2169. One fundamental question is whether the state should institute a voucher program to use state resources to fund education provided by non-public schools. There are disagreements about this issue. But if members of the General Assembly seek to create a new entitlement program, policymakers should take note of and learn from voucher programs in other states that are not accountable to taxpayers and, as a result, have led to the endangerment and abuse of children and the loss of public funds to waste, fraud, and abuse.
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