School Choice & Charters

Capacity Issues Loom as Voucher Support Surges

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 14, 2011 8 min read
Marlon Fincher, 17, shadowed a student at a Fort Wayne, Ind., Catholic high school after a new statewide voucher program inspired his family to look for an alternative to the prospect of a cross-town bus ride posed by the closing of his current high school. His parents, Sherry Fincher and Isaac Fincher, at rear, are looking into details of the program that will help low- to middle-income students attend private schools.
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State-level momentum in support of vouchers and tax credits that help students go to private schools highlights what, to this point, has been a largely theoretical issue: private school capacity to support voucher-financed enrollment.

Academics say the national supply of seats in secular and religious private schools is sufficient to meet short-term demand from existing voucher programs and from those being considered in states such as Pennsylvania. And if the voucher movement continues to gain traction, they say, new private schools may be established or old ones expanded, a pattern that took place with the spread of charter schools.

Longer term, however, meeting the demand for voucher-funded seats will depend on factors such as the scope of those programs, what grade levels they serve, and whether a program’s design encourages private school participation or tangles it in red tape.

“The capacity issue is really tough to figure out in a scientific way,” said John F. Witte, a professor of political science and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is the state evaluator for Milwaukee’s voucher program, one of the largest private-school-choice programs in the country.

Nationally, voucher advocates were cheered by congressional support for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, a federally financed initiative in the District of the Columbia providing tuition vouchers of up to $7,500. The program, first funded in 2004, has awarded scholarships to more than 1,900 students so far. After being slated for phaseout because of Democratic opposition, it was revived in the fiscal 2011 budget compromise approved in April. (“Budget Compromise Puts Vouchers Back on Track for Students in D.C.,” April 27, 2011.)

The momentum is even greater at the state level.

In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, recently signed into law a new voucher program, effective July 1, that initially will apply to a limited number of students but is set to grow. In its third year, the Indiana program would be open to all students whose families’ income does not exceed 150 percent of the amount set for children to qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also a Republican, has proposed in his biennial budget that Milwaukee’s program, which now serves 22,000 low-income students, be expanded to include students of higher-income families, and some school choice advocates want to see it expanded to cities other than Milwaukee.

And Florida’s long-standing corporate-tax-credit program, under which corporations can receive a tax credit for providing scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools, paid for 28,000 such scholarships after being expanded in the 2010-11 school year to include higher-income students.

Pennsylvania could become the next state to implement a statewide voucher program. Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who strongly supports school choice, is negotiating with state lawmakers on the details of legislation to create vouchers for low-income students.

National Perspective

The push for voucher programs and public tax credits, advocated by many Republican state lawmakers and governors elected last fall, is taking place at a time of diminished private school enrollment.

Private schools served about 10 percent, or 5.5 million, of the country’s K-12 students in the 2009-10 school year, down from a peak of 12 percent in 1996, according to figures released last month in the “Condition of Education” report published by the National Center for Education Statistics. From 2001 to 2009, Roman Catholic schools and conservative Christian schools lost tens of thousands of students, while enrollment in independent and nonreligious private schools held steady, the report said.

Although the federal report did not include data on voucher-funded enrollments, the Alliance for School Choice, a Washington-based advocacy group, calculates that 67,267 students were enrolled in voucher programs in the 2010-11 school year, and that 123,544 students were enrolled in tax-credit-scholarship programs.

Keeping Up

In Milwaukee, private schools have successfully kept up with the demand of the state-funded citywide voucher program that started with 341 students in 1990-91 and has grown dramatically since then. Some new private schools opened and others were expanded over time, said Mr. Witte of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, although some also converted to public charter schools, taking them out of the pool to receive voucher students, he said.

But the expansion picture can be complex.

For private schools to be established or to expand, acquiring physical space is key, said Christopher Lubienski, an associate professor of education policy, organization, and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who studies school choice programs. In some cities, private schools could end up competing fiercely for physical space in the same way that charter schools have, predicted Mr. Lubienski.

At the same time, “the Catholic schools have been so underutilized in some cities that physically, they’re well situated to respond,” Mr. Lubienski said. Supply has met demand for seats for voucher students in “old Rust Belt cities,” such as Milwaukee, he said.

Ronald W. Costello, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which enrolls 22,000 students in 68 schools, said Catholic schools in that city will be able to accommodate any voucher participants who choose to go to Catholic schools at first, but it’s unclear how supply might meet demand in the long run.

The Indiana program has written into law a cap of 7,500 participants statewide for its first year and 15,000 for its second year. In the third year, the cap will be lifted. Catholic schools in Indianapolis have the capacity to enroll about 4,000 voucher students, Mr. Costello said.

The vast majority of students receiving scholarships through Florida’s corporate-tax-credit program have been absorbed by existing private schools, not new schools, said David N. Figlio, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., who has evaluated the program.

That program and the McKay Scholarship Program, which provides public funds for special education students to attend private schools, have enabled some schools operated by the Archdiocese of Miami to stay open or to add programs, according to Angelo Palmieri, the interim superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.

At Holy Family Catholic School, in Miami, for example, 163 out of 310 students are recipients of scholarships through the program, and the school likely would have closed without it, Mr. Palmieri said. Overall, he said, 2,770 of the Catholic school system’s 35,000 students receive corporate-tax-credit scholarships; 917 Catholic school students in Miami benefit from the McKay Scholarships.

“We never wanted our schools to be for the elite,” said Mr. Palmieri. “This [voucher aid] has enabled us to teach students whose families are in the poverty levels as well as meet the needs of special-needs students.”

Cost Factors

One key design component of voucher programs that will influence the capacity of private schools to receive participants is the amount of the voucher, according to Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In most places, he said, the per-pupil amount of public funding for a charter school is greater than that for a private school that receives a voucher student.

“You’re not likely to have a lot of existing capacity in the non-Catholic-school sector of the market,” Mr. Henig said. Schools that aren’t subsidized by a diocese or philanthropy can’t afford to stay open if they have empty seats, he said.

“The real prospect for capacity expansion would be a new sector of education entrepreneurs, much like the folks in the charter community, who would find it profitable to step into the gap, or philanthropic forces [that] would subsidize the entry of new schools to make the [voucher] program work,” Mr. Henig said.

Even in Milwaukee, where the supply has generally kept up with demand, the amount of the voucher and the design of the program have affected availability of seats in some grades.

Kim A. Wadas, the associate director for education and health care for the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, in Madison, explained that the Milwaukee voucher program doesn’t permit schools to charge participating families more than the amount provided by the voucher, which was $6,442 this school year. She said it’s been harder for private high schools to afford to take voucher students than private elementary schools, because a secondary education is more costly and some schools may have to absorb a loss of several thousand dollars for every voucher student.

“Supply has met demand in certain grades and maybe not as well in others. There aren’t as many seats available at the secondary level as the elementary level,” Ms. Wadas said.

Regulatory Environment

Policymakers also may need to consider the impact of steps meant to ensure that participating voucher or tax-credit students land in schools that provide a high-quality education, not just whether private schools have enough seats.

Howard L. Fuller, a professor of education at Marquette University, in Milwaukee, and the superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools from 1991 to 1995, said he advises other communities or states implementing voucher programs to set up a private-school-approval board, as Milwaukee did in 1999, to monitor quality for new schools. Also, he said, “all publicly funded students have to take the same tests. We have to be totally transparent.”

Yet such moves may tend to drive away participation by independent and nonreligious private schools, said Patrick F. Bassett, the president of the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools.

Mr. Bassett explained that a fair number of independent schools have participated in the District of Columbia voucher program, albeit by taking only a few voucher students each, because his organization worked to influence the design of the program to be light on regulation. Participating schools weren’t required to alter their admissions criteria or administer the school system’s standardized tests, though voucher students were required to take those tests at other locations, he said.

Mr. Bassett noted that Indiana’s voucher program requires that participating schools administer the state’s standardized tests to students. Because many independent schools would interpret such a requirement as imposing restrictions on teaching and learning, the requirement “would be the death sentence of any voucher program for the independent schools,” he predicted.

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Capacity Issue Looms for Vouchers


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