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Views from private schools

Editor’s Note: This week, January 25-31, is National School Choice Week. It is a good opportunity to think about school choice as it relates to having access to a high quality education in our public schools. For background information on school choice, please see Education Week’s Issues A-Z: Choice and the U.S. Department of Education’s definitions of school choices for parents. EdNC will be presenting a wide range of perspectives on school choice throughout the week and inviting you to participate in this conversation. 

As school choice programs expand in the United States, a lot of people are contributing to the discussion. Politicians, pundits, and interest groups make various claims vilifying or promoting the choice movement, academics debate the educational benefits, and parents hold rallies to demand educational options. Often lost in these discussions are voices representing the private schools that participate in school voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs, and those that stay on the sidelines. Schools choose, too.

Policymakers seeking to improve the quantity and quality of educational options for families through private school choice programs should consider the opinions of the school leaders poised to serve those customers. To better understand the views of current and would-be participants in choice programs, we administered an extensive survey in the spring of 2014 to leaders of private schools in Florida, Indiana, and Louisiana. From Florida’s relatively long-standing and lightly regulated tax-credit scholarship program, to Indiana and Louisiana’s younger and more heavily regulated state-funded voucher programs, these programs share some qualities while differing considerably on others.

For example, in all three states, the programs are means-tested, and in all three cases the scholarship amounts are slightly less than half of the per-pupil revenue received by traditional public schools in these states. In Florida and Indiana, parents can make up the difference between scholarship amounts and tuition, whereas participating private schools in Louisiana must accept the voucher as full payment. Florida and Indiana’s participating private schools can hold scholarship students to the same academic admissions requirements they employ for non-scholarship students, while participating schools in Louisiana cannot employ academic admissions standards to scholarship students.

Our goal was to determine how private schools perceive their role in school choice environments, what elements of choice programs they are enthusiastic about, and which aspects cause them concern.

Nearly 1,000 school leaders participated in our survey. Our goal was to determine how private schools perceive their role in school choice environments, what elements of choice programs they are enthusiastic about, and which aspects cause them concern. Our survey reveals a number of important themes that policymakers should consider when designing choice programs.

School leaders identify the opportunity to serve more disadvantaged students as a primary reason for participation. They also view participation as a way to provide an alternative curriculum to nearby public schools. At the same time, school leaders tend to be less satisfied with the academic preparation of choice students and the involvement of their parents compared to the nonchoice students and parents at their schools. These results were especially pronounced in Indiana and Louisiana.

In all three states, high rates of respondents at participating schools reported that scholarship amounts are inadequate to cover the full cost to educate a child at their school (72 percent in Florida, 64 percent in Indiana, and 57 percent in Louisiana). When we asked school leaders for specific recommendations to improve their state’s school choice programs, requests to increase the scholarship amount were most prevalent.

Across these three states, school leaders’ plans for future participation largely reflect current participation levels. Current private-school participation rates range from roughly two-thirds of the private schools in Florida, half of the private schools in Indiana, and a third of those in Louisiana. While a majority of the participating schools in Florida and Indiana told us they plan to increase their enrollment of scholarship students in the coming year, less than a quarter of Louisiana respondents said they plan to increase their enrollment. Additionally, more than 40 percent of the school leaders at nonparticipating schools in Florida reported that they planned to participate in the coming year, compared to only 20 percent in Indiana and only 8 percent in Louisiana.

Leaders of participating schools identified a number of concerns they have as participants in their state’s choice program. The top concerns for leaders in Florida regarded the stability of the program, adequacy of future voucher amounts, and possible future regulations. In Indiana and Louisiana, the top concern was possible future regulations, followed by concerns about the amount of paperwork and reports. When asked about their concerns relating to student testing requirements, a number of school leaders expressed a strong preference for nationally normed tests.

While nonparticipating schools cited a number of concerns that were major factors in their decision not to participate, concerns about possible future regu­lations were the most cited across all three states, followed by concerns about the effect of partic­ipation on schools’ independence, character, or identity.

Together, these responses illustrate private-school providers’ perspectives on and concerns about vari­ous aspects of school choice programs.

Together, these responses illustrate private-school providers’ perspectives on and concerns about vari­ous aspects of school choice programs. While private schools are eager to serve disadvantaged students, pri­vate-school leaders participating in school choice pro­grams are being asked to take on difficult-to-educate students for a fraction of the amount that public schools would receive for the same students. Additionally, pri­vate schools are concerned about regulation. The prospect of future regulations that might come with participation was cited frequently by participating school leaders as a major concern and was the top factor influ­encing the decision not to participate in all three states.

Clearly, policymakers have much to consider. Deter­mining how to adequately fund voucher programs while avoiding controversy will not be easy. It will also be difficult to find the right balance between regulation and autonomy that maximizes the potential benefits of school choice without sacrificing accountability.

The full report, which includes many more details, can be accessed here.

Brian Kisida, Patrick Wolf, and Evan Rhinesmith

Brian Kisida is a Senior Research Associate, Patrick J. Wolf is a Distinguished Professor, and Evan Rhinesmith is a Doctoral Academy Fellow, all in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.