By Holly Yettick
Tennessee does not have enough private schools that could or would serve the students who would qualify for vouchers under a legislative proposal currently under consideration in the state.
That’s the conclusion of an ongoing Vanderbilt University research study that was presented Thursday on the first day of the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference here.
The Tennessee study, led by Claire Smrekar, a Vanderbilt University professor of public policy and education, was presented in a session on school vouchers in Indiana and Tennessee, two states that provide bookends of a sort to the current school voucher movement, which started nearly 25 years ago in Milwaukee, Wisc.
While Indiana has an established statewide program, Tennessee’s vouchers are still a gleam in the eyes of the legislators.
Yet a shortage of seats is one thing they share in common, according to John Schoenig, the director of the program for K-12 educational access at Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, who kicked off Thursday’s voucher session with a broad, national overview. According to Schoenig, nationwide, students occupy just 250,000 of the 1 million voucher seats currently permitted by law.
“Many of the places that have expansive programs that have many, many seats legislated, they simply don’t have the private school supply to meet it,” he said.
If approved, Tennessee’s voucher program could add significantly to that shortage in that it would be the third biggest in the nation, behind programs in Milwaukee and Indiana, Smrekar said. According to Memphis’s Commercial Appeal: “The heavily Republican legislature is expected to pass a voucher bill, but the fight essentially is over how large of a program and how many students will be eligible.”
The Tennessee approach would permit taxpayer dollars to fund private school tuition for children from low-income families who attend the state’s lowest-performing public schools. Voucher students could only attend accredited private schools. Participating schools would have to agree to accept the voucher (about $5,000 per year) as payment in full even if they charged nonvoucher students more than that. And voucher students would have to take the state’s achievement test or a nationally norm-referenced exam.
Voucher participation would be limited to 5,000 students in the first year but could rise to 20,000 by the fourth year of operation, under the proposal.
But based on the results she had found so far, Smrekar doubted that existing private schools could or would accommodate anywhere near that number. Smrekar’s study focused on Memphis, since that is the hometown of nearly all the students who would qualify under the proposal, which targets students in the bottom 5 percent of public schools. Based on interviews with representatives from 30 of the 85 Memphis-area private schools enrolling at least 50 students, she found that most schools were not eager to participate in the voucher program. Representatives of Christian schools, which comprise the majority of Memphis-area private schools, expressed concerns that the vouchers would compromise their autonomy and religiosity. Representatives of college preparatory schools also expressed concerns about independence.
Elsewhere, Roman Catholic schools have generally been the private schools most likely to embrace vouchers, in part because voucher reimbursements are similar to Catholic school tuition. And urban Catholic schools in particular have long embraced a social justice mission of serving the low-income populations that generally qualify for vouchers.
Memphis is no exception, Smrekar found. The problem is that few Memphis families are Roman Catholic. The Catholic ecclesiastical province that includes Memphis is just 6 percent Catholic. Also, a set of nine Roman Catholic schools located in close proximity to the qualifying Memphis families could serve just 500 voucher students or 10 percent of those who would qualify in Year 1.
University of Arkansas education professor Patrick Wolf, who also participated in Thursday’s session, noted that one approach to the shortage of seats is to relax regulations for participating private schools, as Milwaukee did in the late 1990s so that more private schools would open. However, he noted that Milwaukee was now rethinking its “wild West” approach because the looser regulations has also resulted in uneven levels of private school quality.
Also in Thursday’s session, Notre Dame researchers presented preliminary results from a set of studies that examined levels of satisfaction and assimilation among the students, parents, and educators attending private schools that participate in Indiana’s voucher program. They found that students who used vouchers participated enthusiastically in the curricular and extracurricular programs in schools that offered them. They found that parents were more satisfied with voucher programs than were teachers and administrators at participating schools but that both groups demonstrated high satisfaction levels. (More than 70 percent of parents were satisfied versus 63 percent of administrators and 54 percent of teachers.) Finally, the study also determined that voucher students generally assimilated academically, socially, and behaviorally into their new schools but homework was an ongoing problem, with voucher families often expressing surprise at the amount of time it required.
Look for more reports in this space over the next few days out of this conference, which draws thousands of education researchers from around the world each year.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.