Without equity, school voucher program is rigged

Randy Davis

I want to be very clear right from the start: The voucher debate is not about parental choice. It is simply about whether public tax dollars should be spent on private and parochial schools across our nation. And there is a lot behind this issue that raises questions related to equity, student access, and consistency in what we expect from our educational system.

Public school districts in Michigan are required by law to serve every child residing within their district boundaries ... regardless. I say “regardless” to emphasize the fact we cannot turn away a resident student from enrolling in our schools. Once enrolled, we must develop a plan for every student to address their educational needs. We are bound by federal and state laws to follow the guidance of the Civil Rights Commission and I.D.E.A. not to discriminate on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, or disability. Private and parochial schools are not held to these same requirements.

Instead, they can “cherry-pick” students from public schools; selecting students less costly to educate. Private schools are able to use prior academic performance, disciplinary history, personal lifestyles, and religious beliefs to limit enrollment under current voucher systems; seemingly with impunity. They can also restrict enrollment for students with special needs claiming the school cannot accommodate a particular disability. Many believe these private schools are simply trying to establish small, safe, nurturing environments; which is what we all want from our educational institutions. But public schools must strive to create such great teaching and learning environments for every child that comes to enroll in our schools, not just for a select few.

When it comes to parental choice, I understand the argument to allow students to “choice” out of a failing school system. I even understand when students “choice” into schools offering better opportunities their current school cannot afford. But I have seen first-hand the devastation caused by Michigan’s “school-of-choice” program in small rural and urban school districts. Public schools are primarily funded on a per-pupil basis. A decline in pupil enrollment is a direct decline in school funding; and this means a decline in resources, programs, and services for the students remaining in a school district impacted by school-of-choice.

Students making a choice to leave their resident districts are usually more economically advantaged than their peers. Which, in turn, leaves the economically disadvantaged students behind ... being educated in a school with less resources. And many of these students are also children of color. This results in more segregated schools, sharper contrasts between the “haves and the have nots,” less diversity and inclusion in schools, fragmented communities where neighborhood children attend different school systems, and where communities have lost their local school identity.

Some will argue that public schools experiencing a high number of students leaving through choice is their own fault, and in a way that is true. To negate effects of declining enrollment, I create the best school system I can for the children we serve. Yet because of choice and now vouchers, we have created a very competitive environment for schools where district boundary lines are crossed by neighboring districts with buses and public tax dollars are being spent on marketing and advertising to attract students. It’s an escalating arms race.

We cannot put the “choice” genie back in the bottle. But if we truly had a level playing field between public and private/parochial school systems where all schools are held to the same requirements and performance standards, then vouchers would become an appropriate support to those economically disadvantaged students (without restriction) whom find themselves stuck in a failing school system. But without equity, the voucher debate is a rigged game.

Dr. Randy Davis is the superintendent of Marshall Public Schools, and served on the Governor’s 21st Century Education Commission.

Fixing Michigan’s Schools

This is part of a series of editorials and commentaries this school year exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools. Follow along at detroitnews.com/opinion.