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School Choice & Charters

Nationwide Voucher Program Could Cripple Most Districts, Report Argues

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 06, 2017 2 min read
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Guest post by Andrew Ujifusa

Any attempt by President Donald Trump to institute a federal voucher program would likely do major harm to nearly nine in 10 school districts, argues a report from a left-leaning Washington think tank.

“Vouchers Are Not a Viable Solution for Vast Swaths of America,” released by the Center for American Progress on Friday and written by Neil Campbell and Catherine Brown, finds that in 85 percent of U.S. public school districts, vouchers either may not work or are “highly unlikely” to work and could “decimate” those districts.

The Trump administration is considering various options to expand school choice, with vouchers and tax-credit scholarships among the ideas up for discussion. On the campaign trail, Trump pitched a $20 billion choice program, but since taking office he hasn’t offered more details. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a long-time advocate for various forms of choice. She and other backers of choice have long argued that finding the appropriate education for students, especially those who are disadvantaged, is more important than propping up struggling traditional public schools.

In its report, CAP used the example of the Hot Spring County School District #1 in Thermopolis, Wyo., as a case-in-point. The district has 650 students and is home to one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school—what the authors call an example of the nearly 9,000 “sparse” districts where there are four or fewer schools. The report goes on to say:

Changes in enrollment are especially challenging for communities that have no opportunity to adjust their portfolio of schools. Even if just a handful of students utilized the vouchers, a district such as Hot Springs County--which covers a wide geographic area with one school in each grade span--would face difficult decisions such as reducing classes and course offerings, cutting activities, or reducing student supports to compensate for the reduced funding when students leave.

The report classifies another 2,200 districts as “average,” meaning unified districts with five to eight schools, elementary-only districts with four to five schools, and secondary-only districts with three to five schools. “Vouchers may not work and risk harming existing schools’ ability to serve millions of students” in those districts, CAP said.

Campbell and Brown go on to write that they agree with DeVos about the need for different educational options in different contexts, but they argue that vouchers are not a one-size-fits-all solution that should be relied on. They also say that, contrary to some beliefs about market demand, private schools may struggle even in a voucher-rich national education landscape, particularly when it comes to recruiting and retaining teachers and serving students with special needs.

The report excluded charter districts and regional education agencies that are legally defined as districts. It relies on data from the National Center for Education Statistics, and utilized a map created by EdBuild, a nonprofit education research organization. You can see in the EdBuild map for CAP that many of the “sparse” districts with relatively few schools (those marked in red) are in predominantly rural states and rural areas, where school choice in general can be a challenge.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.