School vouchers: 1 Supreme Court case, 2 two new studies you should know about

Today in school vouchers: One Supreme Court case and two new studies you should know about

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Matt Barnum on June 26, 2017

Monday was a busy news day for school vouchers.

First, two big studies on statewide voucher programs in Indiana and Louisiana dropped. The results provide ammunition for both sides on the long-running debate. More on that in moment.

Then, later that morning, the Supreme Court handed down a major decision regarding whether public funds can go to religious institutions. This won’t have immediate implications for voucher programs, but it may down the line.

Here’s what you need to know.

New research on vouchers necessitates more research

First, the new studies. One comes from Indiana, and examines the first four years of the largest voucher program in the country. Chalkbeat obtained the study and planned to publish it, leading to a wider release by the authors.

Soon after, a study on Louisiana’s voucher initiative also came out.

The studies point to similar results: Vouchers have some negative impacts on student achievement in early years, improving over time for those who remain in the program.

In Indiana, students who stayed in private school for four years at first fell behind public school students, but eventually caught up in math and seemed to score higher in English.

In Louisiana, students who took a voucher were basically on par with public school kids in math and language arts after three years, though they lagged behind in social studies. Crucially, when the researchers included a sample of younger students, the results turned decisively negative, suggesting the program was still reducing achievement for many kids.

The studies add to a body of evidence that private school choice programs improve over time and tend look better in reading than in math.

Advocates pounced on the results, prompting dueling statements from the American Federation of Teachers and EdChoice, a pro-voucher group. (EdChoice is a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

In other words: Research can inform — but won’t end — the debate on school choice. Meanwhile, researchers recommend more research.

States might not be able to constitutionally bar vouchers

More news that is in the eye of the beholder: In the case of Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the nation’s highest court ruled that Missouri could not prohibit a church from participating in a program that provided public resources to refurbish playgrounds.

Why does that matter for school choice? Because Missouri, like many states, has what’s known as a Blaine Amendment in its state constitution, barring religious organizations from getting public money. In some states that has been interpreted to include religious schools participating in a voucher program.

The implications of the decision are not yet clear, though.

Although the court’s ruling was narrow and applied to the specific Missouri program, the logic of the decision suggests that Blaine Amendments may violate the federal constitution — meaning in a future case, the court might say that states can’t stop religious schools from getting money under a voucher program.

On the other hand, nothing in the decision suggests the Supreme Court would or could require any state to adopt a choice program. Moreover, advocates have already created workarounds in the form of tax credit programs that, like vouchers, redirect tax dollars to private, often religious schools — without the money ever entering government coffers.

State courts have generally ruled this approach permissible. In fact, just Monday (yes, more news) a Georgia court rejected a constitutional challenge to the state’s tax credit program. About half of all states already have some form of publicly funded private school choice program.

Once again, individuals and groups on both sides of the issue weighed in — including the U.S. Department of Education.

“This decision marks a great day for the Constitution and sends a clear message that religious discrimination in any form cannot be tolerated in a society that values the First Amendment,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said. “We should all celebrate the fact that programs designed to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based solely on religious affiliation.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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