Voucher advocates claim that voucher programs help poor families. But two out of three of the existing voucher programs are not limited to poor students, and vouchers have in fact been provided for higher income families. Further, limits on voucher dollar amounts ensure that poor students do not in reality have the same choices as rich students. Finally, voucher opponents contend that voucher programs for poor families are ultimately a means to pass unrestricted voucher legislation for all income levels. In fact, attempts have repeatedly been made in Milwaukee and Cleveland to extend vouchers beyond their original low-income target populations, and the recently-defeated California initiative would have distributed vouchers to any student regardless of income.
In Cleveland, influential voucher advocate David Brennan successfully urged Gov. Voinovich to raise the income cap at the outset of the voucher program, with the result that voucher schools could have access to wealthier students.1
Thirty vouchers were legally awarded to Cleveland students whose family income level was between $50,000-$90,000 for 1997 and 1998. While billed as a program for low-income students, the voucher legislation itself did not specify an upper income cap. Students whose family income is at or below 200% of the poverty line qualify for the maximum-90% of the scholarship amount, up to $2,250. However, students at or above 200% qualify for 75%, up to $1,875, meaning that anyone in the district is eligible as long as funds are available. According to the United States Court of Appeals ruling, almost 40% of the students receiving vouchers in the 1999-2000 school year were above the poverty line.2
The state auditor in 1998 reported 113 scholarships awarded to families over the 200% mark, and recommended that the Ohio General Assembly clarify the law if it was indeed its intent to award vouchers to students in financial need.3
The Akron Beacon Journal reported that the state employee responsible for designing the voucher application selection wrote his boss during the program's first year indicating that it appeared poor children selected by lottery may have been passed over for students from higher-income families.4
As in Milwaukee, attempts are being made to expand the voucher program to include higher-income students; some supporters want to increase the voucher amount as well. In April 2001, one Ohio State representative introduced a bill that would at least double the amount of the school voucher-a proposal that could double the cost of the program as a whole. At the same time, a state senator proposed to expand the program to 35 districts in so-called "academic emergency." All students in these districts-regardless of income-would be eligible for vouchers, undermining claims that the program targets low-income students.5
There is no income cap whatsoever for the Florida voucher program. Any student in a "low-performing school" (defined as one that has been rated "F" for two of four years based on statewide assessments) is eligible for a voucher regardless of income. Students whose parents could afford to enroll their child in private school without state aid could thus subsidize tuition at a private school.
In the 2001 session, the Florida House passed a bill (SCRIPT) that would have extended $3000 vouchers to any of the 179,000 students in schools officially classified as overcrowded. The bill died in committee in the Senate, but is likely to be reintroduced in 2002. Unlike the vouchers for failing schools, the SCRIPT vouchers would not be tied to the state's accountability system, and would undermine equity by providing permanent subsidies to attend private school through high school graduation to the mostly well-to-do students who live in high growth suburban areas.6
Florida also provides vouchers to students with disabilities. This program, begun as a one district pilot in 1999-2000 and statewide beginning with the 2000-2001 school year, requires school districts to give parents of children with disabilities the option of transferring to another public school in the district or to a private school. The only criteria for eligibility are that the student have attended a public school for the previous school year, that the parent be "dissatisfied with the student's progress" in that school, and that a participating private school has accepted the student. The state payment to a private school is equivalent to the lesser of the school's published tuition and fees or the amount of public school funding the student would have received (which depends on the type of disability). However, the private school is not required to accept the state funds as full payment - parents are responsible for making up any difference between the state voucher and the school's tuition. In cases where parents opt for having their child transfer to another public school in the district, transportation would be provided only if the transfer also complies with the district's own public school choice plan (if any).7
Under Florida's law, high-performing schools rated "A" are eligible for an additional $100 per student, while schools with an "F" rating are not automatically given additional assistance. Following protests, state officials modified the law to allow those "F"-rated schools that demonstrate significant improvement to qualify for extra money. Opponents, however, still contend that the system fails to recognize the serious challenges facing high-poverty schools and primarily rewards schools in well-to-do areas and is inherently unjust. In Sarasota County in the 1999-2000 school year, five elementary school teachers returned the $500 bonuses they received under Gov. Bush's plan to protest the grading system, and other schools in Sarasota and Manatee counties are redistributing some of the money they've received to schools that need it more.8
In Wisconsin in 2001, Governor McCallum attempted to raise the income cap for voucher eligibility from 175% of the poverty rate to 185% of the poverty rate through his budget proposal for 2001-2003. The Governor would also have allowed voucher students to remain in the program even if their family income increased so that they no longer met the income eligibility requirements in later years.9
Milwaukee's pro-voucher Mayor John Norquist proposed in 1998 to lift the voucher program's income cap altogether and open the door to middle-and upper-class families whose children are already in private schools, to the outrage of the bill's sponsor.10 The official evaluator of the Milwaukee voucher program had testified that the average Milwaukee private school household earns $17,000 more per year than its public school counterpart and concluded that the mayor's proposal to lift the income cap was "the reverse of the intention of the original..."11 -that is, to aid poor families.
In both public and private voucher programs, the voucher amount is insufficient to cover tuition at many private schools. This either requires parents to make up the difference-as is the case in Cleveland-or precludes higher-tuition private schools from joining the program at all. The result is that there is no real equity for poor parents, who cannot make up the difference and still have no access to many private schools. In Florida, for example, private voucher schools must take the voucher as full payment. Those with tuition in excess of the voucher have little or no interest in accepting poor students. As the executive director of the Dade Association of Academic Non-Public Schools commented, "Most of our private schools have tuition that's more than the vouchers would pay. Do you think a private school that charges $12,000 a year would be anxious to take a student for $4,000?"12
In California, the ballot initiative defeated in November 2000 provided that every public school student would be eligible for a voucher regardless of their family's wealth. Eligibility for private school students would have been phased in after the first year, meaning that all K-12 students in the state would have been entitled to receive money for private school at public expense, even if they had never attended public school. The potential cost for private school students alone was estimated at $3.2 billion-representing an entirely new cost for taxpayers.13
Though billed by voucher advocates as a program targeted to low-income students, the Michigan ballot initiative defeated in November 2000 contained a clause that would have allowed any school district to vote to join, regardless of the district's wealth.14 The initiative would also have given a voucher to students already in private schools, no matter how wealthy their family.15
In Pennsylvania, the Southeast Delco district school board approved a voucher plan in 1998 that would have paid private school parents to keep their children out of public schools.16 The plan, which was struck down in court, had no income cap at all and was designed as relief for the parents of the 1,900 students already in private schools.17