Are vouchers making a comeback?

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The State Senate of Indiana  last  month approved the largest voucher programme to be seen in the US so far.

The programme is geared towards families on lower incomes. It will eventually allow 62 per cent of all families in Indiana to take their public funds to a private school if they so choose. The Government will pick up the tab on a sliding scale depending on each family’s income, with the poorest eligible for 90 per cent of their school’s fees. Indiana’s Governor, Mitch Daniels, explained the reforms: “If you’re a moderate or low-income family and you’ve tried the public schools for at least a year and you can’t find one that works for your child, you can direct the dollars we were going to spend on your child to the non-government school of your choice. That’s a social justice issue to me.” Tax vouchers, Charter schools and merit pay for teachers aim to attack the long tail of underachievement in the US schools system. Choice is the driver for change. Critics say that the reality is that the proliferation of hundreds of charter schools creates more financial loss to public schools, as well as inefficient spending due to more staffing and profit-taking sponsors. (although there are plenty of not for profit providers among Charter chains, including KIPP) They also grumble that millions of state tax dollars that could go to new targeted education programmes will not be available because of private school vouchers. Also over fierce Democratic opposition, a Bill to re-establish a school-choice voucher system for Washington, D.C residents has just been published. Democrats opposed the bill, arguing that the previous vouchers programme which  provided a tax credit of $7,500 for each pupil to attend private schools involving   1,700, mostly lower-income students, failed to lift educational performance and that the federal government should focus on improving all schools, rather than a programme that only has $100 million to spend over the next five years on a small percentage of students.  Other opponents of voucher programmes argue that it is unconstitutional for public educational money to be used by students attending private schools, especially religious schools; they say this violates the separation of church and state as outlined in the 1st amendment.   Unions are also opposed to vouchers. Union intransigence though is one reason why Republicans support them, as they believe the unions have too much power over local schools, mainly at parents’ expense and that this imbalance needs to be addressed.  The battle over vouchers continues, polarised along party lines. We are unlikely though over the medium term to see vouchers used on a significant scale. Charter schools though look to be expanding, and Washington DC Charters which grew in response to one of the most dysfunctional city schools systems in the country are thriving and claim to outperform other non- Charter schools in the DC area, including on  graduation rates.

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