Real Clear Policy
Time may be running out for supporters of education vouchers. The very survival of the schools that would benefit most from vouchers is in doubt. Faith-based schools, especially Catholic and Jewish day schools, are facing a financial sustainability crisis. Education costs are rising faster than parents’ incomes. Without access to the never-ending stream of tax dollars allotted to public schools, more faith-based schools will close, and K-12 education in America will be poorer for it.
If faith-based schools reform themselves both academically and financially, they will not only survive the crisis, but also will have armed themselves with a potent argument for vouchers: they’ll be able to say that faith-based schools are both excellent and cost-efficient. But that’s only if voucher advocates and faith-based schools shifted tactics and offered politicians a true value proposition – that is, if they demonstrated high quality at a low cost.
Faith-based schools aren’t ready to make that case. They need to get their own houses in order first. Vouchers level the financial playing field for parents, but they do not guarantee parents will choose a private school if the charter or district public school is better. Voucher-eligible schools will have to compete on both cost and quality in the new education marketplace created by school choice.
Although Catholic schools are less costly to maintain than public schools, per-pupil costs have been rising rapidly – doubling over the past decade. Jewish Day Schools have seen tuitions rise by 50 percent over the past decade.
On the metric of quality, faith-based schools should receive an ‘incomplete’ grade. For example, many inner-city Catholic schools far outperform their public counterparts in graduation rates and college acceptance, but there is simply an appalling lack of comparable data to sort out the quality faith-based schools from their mediocre peers. That has to change – voucher-eligible schools need to demonstrate quality and improvement if they are to compete with charters and public schools in the education marketplace.
How can faith-based schools position themselves to win parents’ trust? New instructional methods like blended learning – which individualizes student instruction by using online content and assessments to capture student data and drive both enrichment and remediation — enable schools to deliver the right lesson to the right student at the right time. The outcomes in charter schools and a handful of Catholic school projects have been astounding, and bode well for the possibility that such schools can lower costs while improving quality.
At the schools where blended learning has been tested, per-pupil costs are down 20-30 percent, and frequently run half the national per student average. They achieve these savings while their students also consistently score much higher than their peers – regardless of race, economic status, and other factors.
These models save money and dramatically improve outcomes. That’s a great way for faith-based schools to adapt to the education marketplace.
In an era of tight-budgets, policymakers (especially in voucher-hostile blue states) are cognizant that out-of-control education spending is crowding out other spending priorities (like infrastructure) without delivering a good return on the public investment. Over the past five decades, K-12 education spending has skyrocketed without any demonstrable effect on student outcomes. In real dollars, it costs four times as much to educate a child in a public school than it did in 1961.
One example of vouchers bucking the trend: The small D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program allows low-income families scholarships to attend local private, largely Catholic schools with a government-funded voucher. Each elementary school participant receives $8,000, and high schoolers get $12,000. According to the Census Bureau, Washington, D.C. Public Schools spent nearly $19,000 per student. Voucher recipients score higher on exams and are more likely to graduate than their public school peers.
The value proposition (cost-to-quality) is striking. The track record of the Opportunity Scholarship program shows that vouchers are a critical way to help politicians balance budgets and find efficiencies without sacrificing excellence. Charters have successfully created competition over the provision of quality education. A robust voucher system could help create a similar market process for reducing costs.
To spell out how that process would evolve: First, faith-based and private schools should seize on the shocking rise in public per-pupil spending and poor outcomes. Public schools are not delivering value to taxpayers or parents.
Next, voucher proponents need to show that private and faith-based schools can deliver value to parents and taxpayers.
This is where blended learning comes in. These new methods and a data-driven learning culture allow schools to “show their work” and prove their efficacy. If these schools deliver transparency and results, they have a potent argument for vouchers that heretofore they have not utilized – that is, voucher schools can deliver excellence at a low price.
If high-quality faith-based schools capitalize on data, transparency and new efficiency models like blended learning, lawmakers hoping to spare other parts of their budgets will be forced to listen. Voucher supporters can win that debate handily.
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