School Choice & Charters

Fla., Wisconsin Tying More Strings to Vouchers

By Erik W. Robelen — May 16, 2006 8 min read
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When the Florida Senate took up a measure this month designed to protect voucher programs from legal challenges, the chamber couldn’t have been more divided: The bill was defeated by just one vote. Two days later, however, another voucher bill won unanimous Senate support.

That legislation, which also passed the House 95-21 and which Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, was expected to sign, would impose a new set of accountability requirements, including mandating standardized tests for thousands of voucher students attending private schools with public money.

The action comes just two months after Wisconsin, as part of a legislative package that would allow more Milwaukee students to use state vouchers, enacted new accountability demands—including testing mandates.

Both measures also call for the data to be submitted to independent evaluators for analysis, as is required under the federally funded voucher program in the District of Columbia. That program also mandates testing of voucher students.

“Year after year, we spend taxpayers’ dollars on these voucher programs,” Sen. James E. “Jim” King, a Republican who sponsored the Florida Senate bill, said in a May 5 statement. “Schools that benefit from this funding should be accountable—both fiscally and academically—for how they use these funds.”

Still, critics argue that the measures fall short of what’s needed to ensure quality. For instance, Sen. Les Miller, the Democratic leader in the Florida Senate, said he “would have loved to see” schools taking voucher students be required to administer state tests rather than nationally normed tests of their own choosing. “Hopefully, this accountability will tighten some things, but it does not go as far as we would like to see,” he said.

The developments in Wisconsin and Florida were welcomed by some national experts on both sides of the voucher debate.

“It’s about time,” said Marc Egan, the director of federal affairs at the Alexandria,Va.-based National School Boards Association, which strongly opposes vouchers. “I think [voucher advocates] just got tired of seeing stories on the front pages of newspapers documenting scandals.”

Clint Bolick, the president of the pro-voucher Alliance for School Choice, based in Phoenix, said voucher supporters “are trying to get ahead of the curve.”

“Either the school choice movement will adopt sound accountability measures, or our opponents will impose unsound accountability measures,” he said.

Testing Accepted

Vouchers were a major political issue in Florida this year, especially after the state supreme court ruled that state’s voucher program for students in low-performing public schools, the 6-year-old Opportunity Scholarships, was unconstitutional. (“Fla. Court: Vouchers Unconstitutional,” Jan. 11, 2006)

Gov. Bush pushed hard for the Republican-controlled legislature to pass a bill asking voters to support amending the constitution to protect the state’s voucher programs. It passed the House but was defeated May 2 in the Senate, with several Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.

The accountability legislation, approved two days later, contains a range of demands, from mandatory background checks on all school personnel who have contact with students to new fiscal requirements for the Corporate Scholarship and McKay Scholarship programs. It also allows the roughly 700 students who received Opportunity Scholarships this academic year to participate in the corporate voucher program instead.

The corporate-tax-credit scholarships permit about 10,000 students from low-income families to attend private schools using donations from corporations, which in turn get state tax breaks. The McKay Scholarships provide vouchers to some 14,000 students with disabilities to attend private schools or obtain services.

Under the legislation, all private schools that accept Corporate Scholarship students would have to administer a “nationally norm-referenced test” identified by the state education department to those students. The scores would have to be reported to the students’ families and to an independent research organization, which the state agency would also select. The bill does not specify the frequency of testing, or the subjects.

The legislation also calls for state officials to conduct random site visits to participating private schools each year to verify information on such matters as student enrollment and background screening of teachers.

Part of the impetus for the new requirements came from state reports citing problems with the voucher programs, including inadequate oversight.

The legislation aims to “address the circumstances that existed very sparingly, but still existed, where money was being paid for students who weren’t in the program or dropped out, … or where there were schools that weren’t as responsible” as they should have been, said Rep. Joe Pickens, a Florida Republican who sponsored the House version. “There were certainly those Republicans who felt it went too far in invading the private school domain, and some Democrats who felt it didn’t go far enough,” he said. “In the end, we were able to compromise.”

Skardon Bliss, the executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools, said the group “didn’t have any problem” with the testing mandate. All 157 schools in his organization administer such tests, he said, though having to report that data to an independent research organization would be new.

House Democrats in March had sought to amend that chamber’s version of the bill to require all voucher students to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, dubbed the FCAT, but that measure was rejected.

“It just wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to give kids a test on a curriculum that they’re not following,” said Mr. Bliss.

The call for random site visits, however, was a problem for Mr. Bliss and some other private school advocates.

“It’s just simply the randomness without prior notice; we did not want that, we did not like that,” said Kenneth P. Wackes, the president of the Florida Association of Academic Non-Public Schools.

Still, Mr. Wackes noted, schools may opt out of the program if they find the idea of such visits too intrusive.

‘An Excellent Exercise’

In Wisconsin, the new accountability measures were part of a political compromise to increase by 7,500 the number of participants in the state’s voucher program, to a total of 22,500.

Democratic Gov. James E. Doyle last year vetoed a bill that would have raised the voucher cap. The state-financed program enables low-income Milwaukee students to attend private secular or religious schools in the city with vouchers worth up to about $6,300.

The new law, enacted in March, contains new requirements for standardized testing and the eventual accreditation of participating private schools.

“The bill represents the first academic accountability in the program’s 15-year history, and it builds on the financial accountability that Governor Doyle put in place in 2004,” said Dan Leistikow, the governor’s spokesman. “The majority of these schools are good-quality schools, but there just have been too many stories about a few schools … using taxpayer dollars to buy a Mercedes or taking field trips to McDonald’s.”

Under the new law, participating private schools must administer a nationally normed, standardized test in reading, mathematics, and science to voucher students in grades 4, 8, and 10. The private schools must provide the scores to the School Choice Demonstration Project at Georgetown University in Washington, which will undertake a longitudinal evaluation of the voucher program.

As in Florida, private schools in Milwaukee have generally not protested the new testing, said Felice E. Green, the director of communications for School Choice Wisconsin, an advocacy group.

“Most of the schools already test anyway,” said Ms. Green. “There was no big objection.”

Brother Bob Smith, the director of lifelong faith formation and education for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said he welcomes the new measures, including the accreditation demands.

The law says that, in general, a school participating in the voucher program must either be accredited, or be on the path to earning such accreditation within 3 1/2 years. The exception is schools that this academic year received separate, privately paid vouchers through Partners Advancing Values in Education, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization that evaluates the quality of schools before providing tuition assistance.

A recent analysis by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel newspaper said roughly 50 of 122 schools in the state voucher program either lacked accreditation or were not taking students under the PAVE program this academic year.

“I think because there’s a menu of accreditation options, it’s not a one-size-fits-all [approach],” Brother Smith said, cautioning that while accreditation is no “magic bullet,” it’s an important step.

But Sen. Lena C. Taylor, a Democrat in the Wisconsin legislature, sees several flaws in her state’s new law, which was opposed by most Democrats. For one, she laments that voucher schools can choose from various tests and do not have to administer those required in Wisconsin public schools, or that the test results are not required to be publicly reported.

Still, Sen. Taylor said she was glad to see greater accountability. “It is more than what existed in the past,” she said. “There is no question about that.”

‘Preserving the Garden’

Joe McTighe, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, a national umbrella group based in Germantown, Md., called the issue of testing “a tricky area for us.”

“We want to make sure the testing requirements don’t impede the private schools’ ability to offer a unique curriculum and particular pedagogy and fulfill the mission of the schools,” he said. “Testing can be a backdoor way of dictating curriculum.”

But Mr. McTighe said the new legislation appears to be in keeping with private schools’ need for independence and individuality.

Patrick J. Wolf, an assistant professor at Georgetown University who is studying the District of Columbia and Wisconsin voucher programs, sees an inherent tension in the voucher movement between encouraging a wide range of options and ensuring a certain level of quality.

He said of the Wisconsin program: “It’s fashioned under the model of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom,’ with the understanding that there might be some weeds.” The new law, he said, is aimed at “preserving the garden by taking out some of the weeds.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.

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