How tuition vouchers for poor kids became a middle class entitlement | Mac Stipanovich
Poor students in poor schools became stalking horses for universal vouchers.

They can stop pretending now.

For years, the private school voucher brigade of the school choice army campaigned under a banner emblazoned with Zip Code Should Not Determine The Quality Of A Child’s Education. The premise is poor areas have poor public schools that rob poor students of an equal opportunity to succeed in life, an injustice that we as a society cannot in good conscience countenance. The solution, they said, is for the state to pay their tuition at private schools, thus freeing the impoverished from educational bondage to the incompetent.

So you would expect the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program created last year by the Legislature would have three threshold requirements: the voucher applicant attends a failing public school; the voucher applicant moves to a better private school; and while the families of the voucher applicant need not be as poor as church mice, they at least are not middle class.

And you would be wrong. Not one of these things is a requirement for receiving a private school voucher.

For example, two of my grandchildren are eligible for $7,300 vouchers because their family income is just below the current voucher ceiling of 300 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three, or $63,990. They live in the same zip code I do, where eating ramen noodles for dinner because of financial hardship is uncommon.

Their mother is a college graduate working full time in her field who owns her home. Both grandchildren attend A rated public schools. Poster boys for a new entitlement program for the undereducated poor they are not.

But perhaps my daughter could improve their educational experience after comparing their public schools with the available private school options. Perhaps. But there are no apples to apples metrics for comparing private schools and public schools to assist her in making a decision.

So she might do better, or she might do worse, which would be fine if she was spending her money. But she would not be spending her money; she would be spending our money. And, we, the taxpaying public, cannot find out what we are getting for that money, because private schools are not required to disclose the results of national norm-referenced tests for these private school voucher students as they are for other publicly funded “scholarship” programs. That reporting requirement was deliberately omitted.

The many defects in the private school voucher program are vexing from a public policy perspective, but none more so than the purposeful lack of transparency and accountability. Public schools are graded and public school students are tested, and the results are available to the taxpayers footing the bill for public education. Conservatives are adamant that hospitals should disclose treatment outcomes and pricing so patients can make informed choices. The threshold test for publicly supported economic development projects and tourism advertising is ROI - return on investment. Accountability is a Republican mantra whenever taxpayer dollars are being spent for whatever reason, and rightly so.

Excepting private school vouchers, that is. In that case, they just threw our money out the window, closed the window and walked away.

But that could change. There is proposed legislation that would ameliorate the lack of program accountability. That is the good news.

The bad news is that the same legislation would move the voucher income ceiling up by 25 percent whenever there are not enough applicants at the lower ceiling. This, plus the existing automatic annual increase in the number of available vouchers, is proof positive this is all about supercharging private school voucher expansion, not combating the effects of poverty in education.

The wide margin by which the reality of private school vouchers miss the rhetorical target of their advocates is clearly the result of intent, not ineptitude. The legislators who crafted the the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program did not miss their mark. Smart, experienced and well staffed, they hit the bullseye at which they actually aimed dead center: Getting the nose of the universal voucher camel under the public education tent. Poor kids in bad schools were just stalking horses for the real agenda.

Mac Stipanovich was chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Martinez and a long-time Republican strategist and lobbyist. He has since registered as no party affiliation and as a Democrat, and his voter registration now varies with the election cycle.