Public Dollars Should Pay for Public Schools: That’s Why I Support High-Quality Charter Schools and Not Vouchers

Mar 22, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Peter Cunningham

This post is part of a series on the issue of vouchers and private school choice. With the Trump administration’s vows to expand school choice, many states are moving aggressively to create more options for families, but some who support education reform and high-quality charter schools are troubled by the use of public dollars as vouchers, tax credits or education savings accounts. More on vouchers →
  Can you be for charter schools but against vouchers? That was the position of the Obama administration, where I worked, though we compromised with Congress to fund the D.C. voucher program. Now, with choice advocate Betsy DeVos running the U.S. Department of Education, all forms of school choice will be official federal policy and the Trump administration is expected to push forward with a tax credit proposal to create private school scholarships. The question is, will it be good for kids?

Why I Support High-Quality Public Charter Schools

I support high-quality public charter schools for several reasons. First off, I believe parents should have the right to find the best public school to meet their child’s educational needs. People with means choose to live in communities with good public schools or to enroll their children in private schools. Charters offer options to low-income parents, so in that sense, they advance equity. Wealthy people have choices; so should the poor. Second, good public [pullquote]charter schools prove that even the most economically disadvantaged kids can learn at a high level.[/pullquote] Traditional public school defenders often cite poverty to justify low grades, test scores and graduation rates but the better charters, and many good district schools, show caring adults and support services can overcome poverty. Third, charters allow for more innovation because they have less bureaucratic oversight and most are not bound by collective bargaining agreements. Even unionized charter schools operate more flexibly than district schools. They can lengthen the school day and year, try new learning approaches, and do not have to hire or retain staff they don’t want. Finally, I support public charter schools because, by design, they are held accountable. Most charters have performance contracts and if they don’t meet performance goals, they can be closed down. Typically, several hundred of America’s 6,900 charter schools close each year, while very few traditional public schools close for low performance.

My Deal With Vouchers

As for vouchers, I appreciate that many low- and middle-income kids have acquired a better education in private schools. Many education advocates support vouchers because they see too many low-income kids and children of color underserved by district schools. Setting aside the research on whether voucher students do better, which is mixed at best, charters differ in one important respect. [pullquote position="right"]Vouchers pull public money out of the public sector, while charters don’t.[/pullquote] Public education is already underfunded in many places. If private schools are competing for those dollars it will be even harder. I also worry that vouchers are a slippery slope. What begins as a program for low-income kids could become a program for middle-income and even wealthy kids. It already has in Nevada. Public education desperately needs middle-class families in its coalition. If we lose them to vouchers, political support for traditional public education will weaken. There’s also the issue of separation of church and state. The Supreme Court has ruled that spending public tax dollars in religious schools does not violate the constitution as long as it is “religiously neutral,” which is to say that it does not favor one religion over another. Others point out that we allow college students to use public funds to attend religious-based colleges and universities, so we have already crossed that bridge. But this is a slippery slope as well. What’s to stop a private school from accepting only kids of one race, religion or political view? How would we feel about public tax dollars paying to educate kids in extremist religious institutions? What stops a private school from denying admission to children with disabilities or accepting only the brightest students? And [pullquote]can we hold private schools accountable?[/pullquote] By law, some states require private schools that accept vouchers to administer standardized tests and publicly report the results, just like public schools. If they don’t meet performance goals with their voucher students, they can be kicked out of the program. But, in practice, we have a hard time holding public schools accountable. Holding private schools accountable would be even harder. Today, less than 1 percent of public school students use vouchers, education savings accounts or tax credits to attend private schools and the amount of money provided is often well below the typical private school tuition. Among other things, this means that vouchers are less likely to serve the poorest or neediest kids. As a practical matter, vouchers will never serve more than a few percent of students, so I am not really worked up about it. That said, support for vouchers is surprisingly high among parents and does better among Democrats than Republicans, according to one poll. Vouchers are also more viable in left-leaning urban settings than right-leaning suburban or rural communities, so the politics are somewhat complicated for progressives like me. We live in a free country and a parent should have the right to opt out of the public school system. But that parent does not have a right to take with them a proportional share of public education dollars any more than a pacifist can extract his share of defense spending. It seems pretty straightforward to me that public dollars should pay for public schools and private dollars should pay for private schools. So, while I support high-quality public charter schools, I don’t support vouchers.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and Foolproofme.com, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

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