As the state Senate begins to debate education vouchers, the discussion so far has centered on choices. The voucher program would give an entitlement to children whose family income is below 130% of the poverty level. They would be permitted to choose a school other than their neighborhood public school and take state and local tax dollars with them.
That’s where the discussion stops for us because the voucher proposal in its current form is entirely unaccountable, both academically and financially. In fact, it is not merely unaccountable; it is hostile to accountability. First, we’ll recite the problems. Then we’ll propose a solution.
Hostile to accountability.
The voucher proposal, Senate Bill 1, does at least seven major things to defeat accountability.
1. It says that the state cannot in the future impose any new accountability measures on non-public schools. There can be no new academic accountability requirements or financial accountability requirements.
2. It exempts the agency that runs the program from adopting its regulations through the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC). This means that policies covering hundreds of millions of dollars (perhaps billions; no one knows) and hundreds of thousands of students are created and enforced without any requirement of public knowledge and opportunity for public participation.
3. The agency, a board, consists of three gubernatorial appointees with no one political party allowed to have more than two seats on the board. Board members need not have any qualifications, and their terms end only when the Senate decides to confirm a replacement. This makes both the board and its members political, not educational.
4. The voucher program is explicitly exempted from the Commonwealth Attorneys Act. This act gives the Attorney General authority to investigate and prosecute cases involving organized crime, public corruption and consumer protection, among other things.
5. The voucher program is explicitly exempted from the Commonwealth Documents Law. This law ensures that government agencies don’t exceed their legal authority in adopting policies and procedures. It also requires the publication of regulations in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, which is the official publication of state government.
6. The voucher bill gives the board a new, large and therefore expensive state bureaucracy to manage. Nothing in the bill requires the board to hire civil service employees with qualifications and salary caps. This permits patronage hiring with arbitrary qualifications and salaries.
7. The voucher board is authorized to study and report on its own effectiveness rather than requiring the Auditor General to conduct independent studies and audits.
In keeping with standard legislative priorities, those who serve on the voucher board receive no salary. This is true of just about every board in state government except, of course, the Gaming Control Board, whose members receive a base salary of $145,000 a year.
USA to the rescue.
Apart from these “features” of the voucher proposal, there is another huge problem: Low-income parents who are given a choice of schools for their children have no objective information available to them that would allow them to compare the quality of non-public schools with the quality of public schools.
The remedy for all of these problems is the USA, the Universal System of Accountability. Its premise is simple: Any school, public or non-public, that receives taxpayer dollars should be required to participate in an academic and financial accountability system that is common to all schools. This means taking the same tests of academic achievement and making the same reports on the expenditure of taxpayer dollars. If there are any current requirements for the public schools that are seen as too onerous for non-public schools, those requirements should be removed from the public schools as well.
Only with the USA or something like it can low-income parents, like patients facing a decision about surgery, make an informed decision about the risks and rewards associated with moving their children from one school to another. Only with the USA or something like it can taxpayers be sure they are getting a better deal for their money.
The voucher proposal, while cast as a debate about choice, does not provide the one choice that most parents want: a high-quality public school close to home or accessible by public transportation. The voucher proposal, therefore, allows the General Assembly to walk away from creating the schools that parents want and that the PA Constitution requires lawmakers to provide in Article III, Section 14. While you’re there, take a look at Section 15 and see what you think it says.
Perhaps while lawmakers debate a USA amendment to SB 1 and prepare nonpublic schools to follow it in exchange for public tax dollars, they can spend their time actually doing what they have taken an oath to do, namely obey the Constitution and provide high-quality schools in every PA community.
(You can hear an audio clip of that hearing by clicking on Rock The Capital.)
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