Montana, like many other states, helps some students pay for tuition at private schools. But the rules for the schools that participate in its tax-credit scholarship program are scant: They do not have to hire teachers with college degrees or conduct criminal background checks on all their employees. Schools do not have to publicly report graduation rates or demonstrate that they are on sound financial footing. And no entity—be it the state, the organization that awards the scholarships, or the private schools—is required to track and report basic demographic data on the students who use the program.
Montana is hardly an outlier.
Nearly 30 states have private school choice programs that either directly pay students’ tuition at private schools or provide generous tax-credits to incentivize businesses and individuals to do so.
But few require private schools to follow standard policies used to ensure transparency and accountability in the nation’s public schools, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey of states on how private school voucher and other closely related programs are regulated.
School Choice Policy Database: Public Reporting and Transparency
Among the survey’s big takeaways:
• Just six states require that all participating private schools admit students regardless of their religion, while only three require participating private schools to admit students regardless of their sexual orientation.
• Only 11 require that all teachers in participating private schools have a bachelor’s degree.
• Fourteen mandate that schools conduct criminal background checks on all staff before accepting tuition paid with the help of state aid.
• And only six states require schools to publicly report their graduation rates.
Those and other findings demonstrate the relatively thin state oversight these programs operate under, especially when compared to the tight regulation and governance of public schools.
While proponents say that giving families the choice to use publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools—and the freedom to walk away from any school that isn’t living up to their expectations—is the ultimate form of oversight, opponents argue that vouchers and their kin are funneling taxpayer money into largely unaccountable private schools.
It’s not a new debate, but it is one that has added urgency as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a case challenging the legality of Montana’s program. The outcome of that case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (Case No. 18-1195), could remove the constitutional hurdles to establishing voucher programs in many other states.
“For school choice families, transparency is necessary if the policy goals articulated in the voucher laws are to be achieved—does the school provide sufficient information for families to make informed choices?” said Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado education professor who studies law and public policy. He is also the director of the National Education Policy Center, a group that is generally critical of vouchers. “I think more importantly, when the school accepts taxpayer dollars, it has to be transparent ... around the responsible use of those dollars.”
There are three primary types of private school choice program that states use to help fund students’ tuition at private schools. The types of program a state has usually depends on its specific laws and constitutional requirements.
Parents public funding allocated for their child’s education toward tuition at a private school of their choice, including religiously affiliated private schools. But since the first modern day voucher program was launched in Milwaukee in 1990, spinoff programs have emerged.
Some states offer tax credits to entice businesses or individuals to donate to a scholarship granting organization, which then gives money to eligible students to use toward tuition expenses at a private school. To qualify, students usually have to come from a low-income family, a failing school, or have other special needs.
Education savings accounts:
States set aside money usually based on per-pupil funding formulas in individual accounts for participating students. Parents or guardians can withdraw that money to spend on approved educational expenses. That may be private school tuition, but it may also be used for tutoring, online courses, transportation costs, or even some types of therapy. ESAs can also allow families to home school or cobble together a hybrid public-private education.
The popularity of private school choice programs continues to grow.
More than half of Americans now support the idea of allowing government to help families pay for tuition at private schools, according to a 2019 survey on the public’s attitudes toward education by the journal Education Next.
Taken together, the number of private school choice programs, which include traditional vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts, and families using them have expanded substantially over the past decade, fueled by influential advocacy groups and strong parental demand.
While Montana’s program is at the center of the potentially pivotal Supreme Court case, it’s miniscule—around 40 students a year receive an average annual scholarship of $500—compared to private school choice programs in Arizona Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin, which serve tens of thousands of students in their respective states with average scholarship amounts in the thousands.
To better understand the governance and accountability of this small, but growing sector of the K-12 system, the EdWeek Research Center reviewed statutes in 29 states that have at least one of the three types of private school choice programs on the books. The Research Center then sent the results of its analysis to state education departments to verify, correct, or update the findings.
The analysis’ findings include:
• Five states require that all teachers in participating private schools be licensed;
• Eight states require all participating private schools to publicly report the results of state and national tests;
• Four states require public reporting of demographic data on participating students;
• Five states explicitly require all participating private schools to admit students with disabilities;
• Fourteen states mandate that participating private schools prove that they are fiscally sound through audits or other measures.
Finally, half of the states with private school choice programs—14—do not even require that the agencies or organizations overseeing them publicly list all the private schools participating.
The same is true for the third-party organizations that oversee tax-credit scholarship programs. Just 12 states require a publicly available list of scholarship-granting organizations—the groups that are approved by the state to take in tax-credit-eligible donations and award scholarships.
Oklahoma is among the states that do not require that a list of scholarship-granting organizations be publicly reported. It took Education Week dozens of emails, multiple records requests, and six months to simply obtain the names of the scholarship-granting organizations from the state.
A Hurdle—or Not?
But that lack of public information on private school participation and quality is generally not a significant hurdle for many families, said Robert Enlow, the president and CEO of EdChoice, a school choice advocacy and research group.
Test scores are not the sole metric of concern to many parents, he said. They may place equal or greater value on school safety and moral education. Families often hear about school options through word-of-mouth.
And while state websites may not be helpful in directing families to good information, in several states, third party groups have stepped in to fill that role.
EdChoice has found through its own surveys that families in Arizona, Florida, and Indiana who use school vouchers most often rely on social networks to learn about private school options and programs to help pay for tuition. The surveys, however, have not included families who were awarded a voucher or scholarship but did not ultimately use them.
“What they’re doing is they’re finding out from three places: their friends, church, and the internet,” said Enlow. “They’re doing the same thing you and I would do when we look for a new restaurant: You don’t go to the state regulator, you go to Yelp.”
Or, you see a sign while you’re driving around, as Natalie Gillepsie did.
She first learned about an income-based tax-credit scholarship program available in Florida when she saw garage-sale type signs on the lawn of a Methodist church in Brooksville, Fla.
That was 10 years ago. Since then, two of her nine children have used tax-credit scholarships to attend private schools. A third, her daughter Axi, is enrolled in Florida’s Gardiner program for students with severe special needs.
Axi, 15, has cerebral palsy and found the public school she used to attend “big and overwhelming,” Gillepsie said, and she felt Axi was not receiving the one-on-one services required in her individualized education program.
“She couldn’t sit up on her own or walk and certainly if you can’t even balance your body on a chair, you can’t focus on learning,” said Gillepsie. It can also be difficult to find information on public schools, she added.
Under the Gardiner program, state funding allocated to Axi goes into an education savings account which Gillepsie can draw from to pay for approved education-related expenses—in her case private school tuition and physical therapy.
Gillepsie, so far, has been happy with the services that Axi has received at the private schools she has attended with the help of the Gardiner program. She’s grateful to the teachers who have taught to the needs of Axi as well as the physical therapists who helped her daughter learn to stand.
Half of the 29 states with voucher and related programs have ones exclusively for students with disabilities. Most have created programs for low-income students.
The list of state regulations that were analyzed by the EdWeek Research Center is not exhaustive, and private schools may be subject to additional accountability rules that are not captured in the analysis.
For example, students using tax-credit scholarships in Florida must take a nationally norm-referenced test. While schools do not have to report those scores directly to the state, they must provide the results to their students’ parents and to an independent research group selected by the state to conduct an annual evaluation of the program.
In Indiana, the state is not required by law to publicize how well students in participating private schools do on tests, but nonetheless the state uses academic achievement data to assign private schools A-F grades just as it does its traditional public schools and charter schools.
And while only 11 states require that all teachers in participating private schools have bachelor’s degrees, some programs—such as the federally backed program in the District of Columbia—do mandate that teachers of core subject areas, such as math and English, have a college degree.
Nor does the Education Week analysis touch on curriculum requirements for private schools that receive public aid, an issue of major concern for some groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Private schools are not subject to the same educational standards as public schools, even when they accept public funding through vouchers,” said Heather Weaver, an attorney for the ACLU, in an email to Education Week. “This leads to taxpayer funding of curricula that are deeply troubling and that run counter to recommended and legitimate educational practices.”
She cited several examples the ACLU has found in Louisiana: “A math textbook declared that ‘the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute’ and thus restricted its lessons to ‘workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory,’” she said. “One school’s history textbook stated that ‘God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ.’”
But it’s because of religious rights that states may be hesitant to more thoroughly regulate private schools in choice programs, many of which are affiliated with a church, said Marie A. Failinger, a professor of law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minn., whose work focuses on religion and policy. There are still a lot of legal gray areas that have not been hammered out yet when it comes to what states can tell private religious schools to do, even if they’re participating in a state-sponsored school choice program, she said.
“That’s probably why states have been reluctant to pass very comprehensive regulations,” she said. “Because they don’t know at what point the courts are going to say, ‘This violates the religious rights of parents to educate their kids the way they want to.’”
Or it may violate the religious freedom of schools. Maryland is one of three states that explicitly require schools to admit students regardless of their sexual orientation. The state has been sued in federal court by a private school it booted out of its tax-credit scholarship program over what the state described as a discriminatory policy toward LGBTQ students. The school contends the state unconstitutionally removed it from the program because of its religious beliefs.
Finding a Balance
Many school-choice advocates—including U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—are deeply skeptical of regulation in general and whether, unchecked, it creates more bureaucracy than educational improvement.
“We don’t know that taxpayer funds are being used right just because we collect a lot of data,” said Enlow, the head of EdChoice. He pointed to students who graduate from high school with good grades and then have to take remedial classes in college.
Additionally, the whole point of giving families school choice is to have schools that look and operate differently from one another, said Enlow, and regulation may have the effect of squeezing out the features of what makes private schools distinct.
“You don’t want to create a structure of private schools that makes them look like public schools,” he said.
But supporters of school choice—even among those who favor vouchers—are not a monolith. Some believe that private school choice programs should be more regulated. Among them is John Schoenig, the senior director for teacher formation and education policy at the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education.
“I think there is a threshold of reasonable regulation on which we can predicate receipt of public funding,” he said. “Now, we can have debates about where the red line should be drawn. I think it is fair to draw the red line at, for example, being able to in some way verify that the teachers in the schools meet some minimum standard of reliability and quality.”
Shoenig is worried that the debate over private school accountability in voucher programs is often cast in extremes: that there needs to be little to no state regulation otherwise the state will take over the schools. That misses a bigger issue, Schoenig contends, which is that private school choice advocates right now should be helping develop more thorough accountability measures that work for private schools before states impose one-dimensional measures of school quality.
After all, Schoenig said, private schools can be autonomous and more transparent—the two are not mutually exclusive.
“Often in education we will talk about accountability, but the antecedent to accountability is transparency,” he said.
Librarian and Data Specialist Maya Riser-Kositsky and Research Center interns Xinchun Chen and Yukiko Furuya contributed to this report.
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Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2020 edition of Education Week as Transparency Lacking on Private School Choice