At the Capitol: In fight over school vouchers, it’s promise vs. performance

/ 3 March 2012 / jennifer

Megan Boldt, Pioneer Press, March 3, 2012 –

Republican lawmakers are ramping up the battle over school choice in Minnesota.

They are pushing measures that would funnel taxpayer money to private schools by giving poor students in failing schools vouchers, and providing tax breaks for parents who pay tuition and businesses that donate to scholarship funds.

Proponents say the vouchers would empower low-income families and give them choice when public schools aren’t meeting expectations.

“They probably don’t have any options, and they’re stuck in a system that’s failing,” said state Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, the sponsor of the bill. “So the question is: Why shouldn’t we give them an option? Why should we lock them into failure?”

But opponents argue that studies of voucher programs across the nation show they don’t raise student performance as backers have promised. And if private schools want public money, they can abide by the same rules and accountability measures public schools must follow, such as reporting test scores, paying for special-education costs or enrolling all students regardless of their background.

“Vouchers are a failed right-wing social engineering experiment,” said state Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis. “It’s a distraction and a misrepresentation of what’s going on in our schools.”

The proposed voucher program would allow a student whose family income is around $40,000 or less for a family of four to attend private school at taxpayers’ expense if his or her school has been persistently low-performing for three or more years based on student performance on statewide math and reading tests.

Versions in the House and Senate have different definitions of “low-performing schools.” And the House bill limits the vouchers to students in approximately 50 schools in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth, while families statewide could qualify under the Senate plan.

Checks would be sent directly to the family and would be equal to or less than the amount of the state’s average per-pupil aid, but not to exceed tuition costs.

And to encourage businesses and individuals to donate to scholarship-granting organizations for low-income students, Republicans also are backing legislation that would give them tax credits for the full amount they contribute – with no limit. But the state would cap the program at $20 million and donors would get the break on a first-come, first-served basis.

Proponents last week were touting the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program as an example of how it could work in Minnesota. The voucher program, the first of its kind when it kicked off in 1990, allows low-income children in Milwaukee to attend private schools at taxpayers’ expense.

It was expanded last year, and now more than 23,000 students attend more than 100 private schools with the help of a voucher worth up to $6,442.

Patrick J. Wolf, a University of Arkansas professor who has researched the Milwaukee program over the last five years, told state lawmakers last week that students using vouchers scored virtually the same on state math and reading tests as similar kids in public schools. That echoes other researchers’ results.

But Wolf did say students who were in the program were more likely to graduate from high school, go on to higher education and stay in college. Rates for those students are 4 to 7 percentage points higher.

“Why are educational attainment rates important? It’s because young people who go further in school do better in life,” Wolf said.

He also said Milwaukee’s voucher program saved Wisconsin taxpayers about $52 million last year.

But opponents argue that Wolf’s research is flawed. Most ninth-graders – about 75 percent – who used vouchers for private schools left those schools before their senior year of high school. So how can researchers assume the private schools were the reason they graduated from high school?

And the report’s summary says the results do not support a comprehensive conclusion that the parental-choice program provides a better learning environment than public schools.

“Why are we doing this, then?” Davnie asked. “I’m just baffled.”

That lack of evidence that vouchers would enhance student achievement is causing voucher backers to change their tune, said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. Now, Croonquist said, they’re arguing that it’s about giving parents choices and creating more competition for public schools to make them better.

Minnesota already is a national leader in school choice, Croonquist said. The state has an expansive open-enrollment program that permits students to attend the public school of their choice, regardless of district boundaries. Minnesota was the first state in the nation to open charter schools in 1991. Students can sign up for college classes in high school.

And families who send their kids to private schools can already take advantage of tax breaks.

“I think we already have a full array of educational choices that are available to parents and students in Minnesota,” Croonquist said.

It also undermines accountability for public funds, said Jan Alswager, chief lobbyist for the statewide teachers union Education Minnesota.

Private schools are free from many of the mandates that public schools face. Teachers don’t have to be licensed (though most are). Students don’t have to be tested. Schools don’t have to report financial information to the state Department of Education. And unlike public schools, private schools can turn away students based on their religion, past behavioral problems or disabilities.

A voucher system also could raise constitutional challenges. The Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says it would violate the state’s constitution, which guarantees a general and uniform system of schools and prohibits public money going to religious schools.

But voucher supporters say the notion that private schools just cater to white, middle-class families isn’t true. And they have accountability – parents walk if the schools are not up to par.

Helen Dahlman, principal at Risen Christ Catholic School, points to her K-8 school in South Minneapolis as an example. Almost all students are poor. More than 90 percent are children of color, most of them Hispanic. And two-thirds are English-language learners.

Dahlman said parents send their children to Risen Christ because they want the best for their students and haven’t found it anywhere else.

Of the 19 kindergartners the school had last year, only three knew more than three letters of the alphabet. By the end of the year, all could name and identify all letters of the alphabet and count up to 100. All 40 eighth-graders last year were accepted at the secondary schools of their choice.

“These are families that desperately want their children to succeed,” Dahlman said. “They want to access the American dream, and that is through education.

“They achieve when you believe in them and say success is the only option,” she said.

Claudia Correa took her two oldest children out of public school almost a decade ago and enrolled them at Risen Christ when they were in fourth and second grades. They had good teachers at the public school, but classes were large and her daughter wasn’t getting the attention she needed. Correa had no idea her daughter was two years behind in reading.

She was able to work out a plan for reduced tuition at Risen Christ. Her children thrived and a third child is now a third-grader there. Correa likes the Catholic education and emphasis on service to the poor. And the small classes meant her children got the one-on-one attention they needed, she said.

“There is more emphasis on the student and the needs of the student,” Correa said. “In public school, they were one of many.”

Megan Boldt can be reached at 651-228-5495. Follow her at