Voucher advocates claim that vouchers help disadvantaged students. Yet these programs divert money that could otherwise be used to help public schools better meet the needs of low-income students.
Advocates in Milwaukee characterize vouchers as the only “choice” for disadvantaged students, even though proven public school alternatives have been shown to work. The state’s popular and successful SAGE program (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education) lowers student/teacher ratios to no more than 15:1, increases school-community collaboration and improves curriculum for qualifying low-income schools. Yet the state initially imposed a cap on the number of Milwaukee schools allowed to participate, seriously limiting the benefits of the program for the city’s students.39 Through 1998-99, SAGE-eligible students outside Milwaukee had a one in two chance of receiving SAGE funding; that number for SAGE-eligible students in Milwaukee was less than one in six40 even though inner-city and minority students reap the greatest benefits from class size reduction.41 These inequities were redressed in the 2000-01 state budget and, as a result, Milwaukee enrolled 74 additional schools in SAGE in the 2000-01 school year.42
SAGE faced a new threat in Governor McCallum’s 2001-03 budget, which would have increased the funding for vouchers by $27.5 million above the base funding of $49.7 million per year while at the same time cutting SAGE by roughly the same amount.43 This was especially distressful as annual SAGE evaluations have consistently demonstrated that it benefits all students but is particularly effective in helping low-income and minority children achieve academic gains. The legislature rejected the governor’s SAGE cut, but approved continued full funding for the voucher program at the expense of the state’s kindergarten program for four-year olds.44
Due to financial cutbacks, Cleveland’s, full-day kindergarten was eliminated in all of its non-magnet schools the year before the voucher program began. For many families, the only “choice” for kindergarten became the voucher program.45 Full day kindergarten was reinstated by fall 1998 but funding for the kindergarten program comes fully from DPIA, further limiting its ability and effectiveness in addressing education-related issues in low-income public schools.
Funds for the Cleveland voucher program come out of the city’s portion of the state’s DPIA funding. DPIA is directed toward low-income public school students to be used for such programs as class size reduction, dropout prevention, Head Start or pre-school, all-day kindergarten, reading improvement and summer school.46 By reducing the funding with vouchers the effectiveness of these programs may be reduced.
In Florida, some pro-voucher state legislators who argue that vouchers will improve educational quality have at the same time voted to cut back on programs for struggling students, have failed to provide adequate funding for textbooks, have increased class sizes, and when faced with a budget surplus, voted for tax breaks but not for increased school funding.47 The McKay voucher program cost the state $25 million in 2001 adding to its $1.4 billion deficit.
Floridian Rae Osborne’s autistic son is one of 99 of every 100 disabled students who turned down a McKay voucher. According to Osborne, her son was performing well and even making the honor roll, with the help of a classroom aide employed by his public school. But due to a lack of funding, the state has stopped providing schools with funding for aides.48 In a letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times, Osborne states: “It may interest some to know that at the same time this expansion took place, the DOE withdrew funding for enhanced aides for disabled students. What this means is that if your son or daughter attends public school and is classified as disabled, he or she is no longer entitled to a full-time aide in the classroom. The paltry amount paid out of public funds to the “McKay schools” does not begin to cover the funds needed to provide aides, special equipment, and the other amenities necessary to adequately educate a handicapped child.”49