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Balancing Transparency and Independence in School Choice Programs

• Dr. Matthew Ladner

Recently I read an article about the Indiana’s successful school voucher program. The article noted that spaces at participating private schools were running low, and that some advocates had begun to discuss the possibility of seeking state funds for facility expansion at participating private schools. The article also noted, however, that only 300 of Indiana’s 900 private schools participated in the voucher program.

Things that make you go “hmmmm.”

Indiana’s voucher program requires all students to take the state academic exam and even goes so far as to grade them A-F. Louisiana has a similar setup for their choice program, so I decided to check participation there. I found strikingly similar results there, with just fewer than a third of schools participating.

Next I checked Florida’s Step Up for Students corporate tax credit program. The Florida program requires students to take a test, but provides the schools the flexibility to choose the test (whether the state FCAT or a national norm reference exam) out of respect for the curricular independence of private schools. The program also requires the publication of scores when a school educates more than a small number of students, and the state pays for annual academic evaluations of the program.

Seventy-one percent of Florida private schools participate in Step Up.

Finally I checked the numbers on Arizona’s tax credit program. Arizona’s program includes some data reporting for scholarship granting organizations, but has no provisions for the reporting, collection, or analysis of student test scores. Almost 100 percent of Arizona private schools participate in the Arizona program.

We have no “right” or “wrong” answers here, only preferences. In crafting private choice programs, policymakers must balance the legitimate public interest in transparency with a respect for the independence of private schools, which are held to the ultimate form of accountability: parental satisfaction. In so doing, the cost of regulation in terms of private school participation—thus seats denied to students—ought to be carefully weighed.

In my book, Florida’s tax credit program has hit the sweet spot. I’m willing to pay a price for transparency, but see very little added value to mandating the FCAT and at potentially a very high cost to kids.

About the author

Dr. Matthew Ladner @MatthewLadner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He previously served as Vice President of Research and Goldwater Institute. Prior to joining Goldwater, Dr. Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice. Dr. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform. Most recently, Dr. Ladner authored the groundbreaking, original research Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, outlining the future funding crisis facing America’s K-12 public education funding. He also coauthors the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission of Civil Rights and numerous state legislative committees. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.