In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett looks like he’s going to get private school vouchers into the hands of kids who would otherwise be stuck in failing public schools. There are two good reasons for the Jewish community to support vouchers here and in other states where similar voucher programs are being legislated: The evidence proves that school vouchers work and vouchers mean that more Jewish kids will be able to get a Jewish education.
First to the evidence: According to two recent studies, one of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and one of the older and larger Milwaukee voucher program, kids who get vouchers to attend private school have higher graduation rates than their counterparts in public school. In Washington, D.C., voucher kids have a 91 percent graduation rate as compared with the D.C. public school average of 56 percent. In Milwaukee, the graduation rate for voucher kids was 94 percent versus 75 percent of public school kids.
Higher graduation rates are especially meaningful given the population that vouchers are supposed to serve, namely poor, black children. As Jason Riley recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, “High school dropouts are eight times more likely than someone with a diploma to wind up behind bars. Some 60 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 30s have a prison record.”
Who do you imagine Pennsylvania’s voucher program is intended to help? As one of the legislation’s main sponsors, State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) argues that vouchers are intended to help urban, disadvantaged, black children. “Many inner-city schools,” he says, “remain separate and not equal for African-American and other disadvantaged children.” These kids, Williams argues, are trapped in “failing” schools that are killing their future.
Another point that Williams makes about the effectiveness of vouchers is that competition will help bad public schools to improve. The research bears out this assertion, as well. Greg Forster of the Foundation for Educational Choice wrote in March, “Every empirical study ever conducted in Milwaukee, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Maine and Vermont finds that voucher programs in those places improved public schools.”
Second, more Jewish kids could get a Jewish education:
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently reported, Pennsylvania’s proposed voucher program will likely be expanded in its second and third years of operation in order to increase availability to lower-income and middle-income families. “The changes negotiated with the governor’s office make more children eligible in the 2015-16 school year by increasing income limits to 350 percent of the federal poverty level ($78,225 for a family of four). The bill previously had an income limit of 300 percent of the poverty level ($67,050 for a family of four).”
Much as we like to think of our community as having “made it,” many, many Jewish families would easily qualify for vouchers under this expanded definition. In that case, Jewish children whose parents couldn’t otherwise afford Jewish day school tuition could, with the state’s assistance, have their kids attend Jewish school.
Jewish federations and other nonprofits have been working overtime, especially in recent years, to make Jewish education more affordable. Pennsylvania’s various Jewish communities similarly value Jewish education and have tried as best they can to help make a Jewish day school education more affordable. But that doesn’t mean that all parents who want to send their child to Jewish day school can afford it. And often it is middle-income families who feel most squeezed, with many earning more than what will qualify them for some scholarships while not enough to be able to afford day school without help.
If the state decides to provide vouchers for all qualifying middle-income families, do Jewish families have any less reason to take advantage of the opportunity than others? Indeed, it behooves the Jewish community to suggest to qualifying families that once they are able to afford private school, Jewish day school is the best choice they can make.
(Abby Wisse Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based political columnist, blogs for the New York Post at nypost.com/blogs/capitol.)