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Budget deal could come down to K-12 funding

Plus, what research says on school vouchers

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June 27, 2024 | spotlightpa.org

With the June 30 budget deadline looming, deciding how much to spend on K-12 education remains a major obstacle to the state legislature striking a deal.

Lawmakers must overhaul Pennsylvania's funding system for basic education after a judge ruled last year that the status quo is unconstitutional. 

Also this week, Pennsylvania's Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust approved spending plans for coroner's offices, but rejected a Philadelphia plan for quality-of-life expenditures for the Kensington neighborhood.

And finally, a far-right group is asking a judge to order a cleanup of the state's voter rolls. But an election expert suggests the claims are based on a "gross misunderstanding of election law." 

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The hard data on school vouchers

Few arguments in Harrisburg are as fraught as the one happening now over school choice vouchers. As budget talks speed toward a resolution that may include them, what do we actually know about their potential impact?

A substantial body of research from decades of voucher use in multiple states offers some answers.

Let’s start with a definition. Broadly, a voucher program routes public funding into private schools, generally in the form of scholarships, to give students additional options. The first statewide program launched in Florida in 1999, and since then, sixteen states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have created some form of voucher initiative. 

Peer-reviewed studies on vouchers’ effects began in the early 2000s. 

According to Patrick Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas who supports voucher use, those early studies showed fairly consistent results

“What we see in the patterns in the data, first-year effects, often, are somewhat negative. By the second year, students have pretty much squared their performance up with the control group students. And then by the third and fourth year, they show small test score gains,” he said. 

However, those early voucher studies focused mostly on small pilot programs in urban districts, according to Wolf. In those days, programs tended to be narrowly targeted at low-income students or low-performing schools. 

That’s no longer always the case. Several previously narrow programs are now open to any family who wants to use them, and large, statewide programs are growing in popularity.

More recent studies have shown much more mixed results on these broader versions of vouchers. Studies on Louisiana’s program from 2018 and 2019 are among the most frequently cited: they showed a consistent trend of declining test scores among participating students. 

University of Wisconsin-Madison education policy professor Joshua Cowen cites those studies to argue that vouchers are counterproductive. Those results highlight a problem he believes is common: The schools students were sent to with vouchers weren’t very good. 

Cowen thinks early studies showed promising results because they featured a “handful of schools carefully selected by the research team to participate. They have the infrastructure to participate in the scientific studies. They have the capacity to absorb 15 low-income kids and work with them.”

But things don’t work that way at a larger scale, he argued.

“When we're talking about statewide systems on the order of 10,000 kids or 20,000 kids,” he said, there aren’t enough quality private schools to send them to. “We're only talking about a handful of private schools that are any good and can actually absorb those kinds of burdens.” 

Wolf agrees that the Louisiana program routed students to subpar schools. But he believes it’s more due to flaws in the program than a fundamental issue with vouchers. 

The program offered relatively small scholarships and didn’t allow schools to charge more than that, he said, which led to struggling schools being the only ones that accepted such low tuition. 

“A lot of private schools looked at that deal and said, ‘We're out, we're not going to accept these terms.’”

Pennsylvania’s program, if passed in the same form that lawmakers proposed last year, would avoid some of the primary pitfalls Wolf and Cowen point to in other states. 

While small, last year’s bill language wouldn’t have included many of the restrictions of Louisiana’s bill. Parents would be able to supplement tuition with their own money or with other scholarships, for instance. 

The program also would be available only to students from low-income families who attend “low-achieving” school districts. Cowen noted, “If they do pass a bill in Pennsylvania [with income limits], that would be one of the first in a very long time.” 
Katie Meyer, Spotlight PA
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