The Richmond-based Commonwealth Institute (CI) has staked out a reasonable position on two school choice bills before the General Assembly this session. Rather than opposing school vouchers and health savings accounts out of hand, CI acknowledges that children, especially poor children, can benefit from alternatives to public school. But the center-left think tank insists upon holding private schools accepting taxpayer dollars as accountable as public schools.
Not all private schools are created equal. Some excel, far surpassing public schools in performance, while others can be described only as failures. “If the goal of school choice is to provide options for a high-quality education,” writes Chris Duncombe in CI’s Half Sheet blog, “then it makes sense to hold private schools receiving taxpayer dollars to the same standards as public schools.”
Two bills before the General Assembly — HB 1605 and SB 1243 — would create voucher-like educational savings accounts that would provide taxpayer dollars for families pursuing private education or home schooling. One way to hold hold private schools accountable to taxpayers is to adopt a policy practiced in some other states: If a private school falls short of accreditation standards, bar them from accepting vouchers the following year.
As a practical matter, if I understand the system correctly, that means private schools with voucher students will have to administer the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams. For a school to receive accreditation, a specified percentage of its students must rate proficient in the exams. That might well mean “teaching to the test,” which some private schools find objectionable. But unless someone suggests another means to hold schools accountable and weed out the inevitable fly-by-nights, meeting state accreditation standards may be the least bad option.
For Duncombe, a second issue is equity. The school vouchers would vary widely from locality to locality, dependent upon state Standards of Quality funds appropriated. “That means a family in Lee County would receive over three times as much as a family in Falls Church,” he says. “This variation is not based on the financial need of the family or the cost of pursuing private education in the area.”
(I’m not sure I see the objection here. A family in Lee County is already receiving three times as much state aid as a family in Falls Church. So, how would funding school vouchers on the same basis be any more inequitable?)
Duncombe’s third criterion is income eligibility: “A millionaire could get tax dollars to send their kid to private school, while a family who lacks the means to supplement the voucher with their own income would be left out.” His proposed solution would be to limit the benefit to households whose incomes are below 133% of free-and-reduced-price lunch eligibility — about $60,000 for a family of four.
These proposals are not unreasonable. Duncombe is not taking a position of “Vouchers, hell, over my dead body.” He’s trying to address the criticisms of school vouchers in a substantive way — in effect, taking away the arguments who those who are inclined to accept school choice over their dead bodies. If these compromises are what’s necessary to win legislative approval, expand the sphere of choice, and empower parents, then I can live with them. With luck, the General Assembly and Governor Terry McAuliffe will decide they can live with them, too.