Education Week examined the extent of state oversight of publicly funded religious schools and found that it was minimal. Betsy DeVos’s goal of public funding for religious school tuition is gaining traction.

However, there is one glaring error in the article: it cites positive poll data from Education Next, which strongly supports vouchers, yet fails to mention that voters have repeatedly rejected such programs, most recently in Arizona in 2018, where voucher expansion lost a state referendum by a margin of 65-35% despite ample funding from the Koch and DeVos families and the support of Governor Doug Ducey, a Koch mentee.

The story begins:

Montana, like many other states, helps some students pay for tuition at private schools. But the rules for the schools that participate in its tax-credit scholarship program are scant: They do not have to hire teachers with college degrees or conduct criminal background checks on all their employees. Schools do not have to publicly report graduation rates or demonstrate that they are on sound financial footing. And no entity-be it the state, the organization that awards the scholarships, or the private schools-is required to track and report basic demographic data on the students who use the program.

Montana is hardly an outlier.

Nearly 30 states that have private school choice programs that either directly pay students’ tuition at private schools or provide generous tax-credits to incentivize businesses and individuals to do so.

But few require private schools to follow standard policies used to ensure transparency and accountability in the nation’s public schools, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey of states on how private school voucher and other closely related programs are regulated.

* Just six states require that all participating private schools admit students regardless of their religion, while only three require participating private schools to admit students regardless of their sexual orientation.

* Only 11 require that all teachers in participating private schools have a bachelor’s degree.

* Fourteen mandate that schools conduct criminal background checks on all staff before accepting tuition paid with the help of state aid.

* And only six states require schools to publicly report their graduation rates.

Those and other findings demonstrate the relatively thin state oversight these programs operate under, especially when compared to the tight regulation and governance of public schools.

While proponents say that giving families the choice to use publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools-and the freedom to walk away from any school that isn’t living up to their expectations-is the ultimate form of oversight, opponents argue that vouchers and their kin are funneling taxpayer money into largely unaccountable private schools.

It’s not a new debate, but it is one that has added urgency as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a case challenging the legality of Montana’s program. The outcome of that case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (Case No. 18-1195), could remove the constitutional hurdles to establishing voucher programs in many other states.

“For school choice families, transparency is necessary if the policy goals articulated in the voucher laws are to be achieved-does the school provide sufficient information for families to make informed choices?” said Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado education professor who studies law and public policy. He is also the director of the National Education Policy Center, a group that is generally critical of vouchers. “I think more importantly, when the school accepts taxpayer dollars, it has to be transparent … around the responsible use of those dollars.”

Growing Popularity

The popularity of private school choice programs continues to grow.

More than half of Americans now support the idea of allowing government to help families pay for tuition at private schools, according to a 2019 survey on the public’s attitudes toward education by the journal Education Next.

Taken together, the number of private school choice programs, which include traditional vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts, and families using them have expanded substantially over the past decade, fueled by influential advocacy groups and strong parental demand.

While Montana’s program is at the center of the potentially pivotal Supreme Court case, it’s miniscule-around 40 students a year receive an average annual scholarship of $500-compared to private school choice programs in Arizona Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin, which serve tens of thousands of students in their respective states with average scholarship amounts in the thousands.

To better understand the governance and accountability of this small, but growing sector of the K-12 system, the EdWeek Research Center reviewed statutes in 29 states that have at least one of the three types of private school choice programs on the books. The Research Center then sent the results of its analysis to state education departments to verify, correct, or update the findings.

The analysis’ findings include:

* Five states require that all teachers in participating private schools be licensed;

* Eight states require all participating private schools to publicly report the results of state and national tests;

* Four states require public reporting of demographic data on participating students;

* Five states explicitly require all participating private schools to admit students with disabilities;

* Fourteen states mandate that participating private schools prove that they are fiscally sound through audits or other measures.

Finally, half of the states with private school choice programs-14-do not even require that the agencies or organizations overseeing them publicly list all the private schools participating.

The same is true for the third-party organizations that oversee tax-credit scholarship programs. Just 12 states require a publicly available list of scholarship-granting organizations-the groups that are approved by the state to take in tax-credit-eligible donations and award scholarships.

Oklahoma is among the states that do not require that a list of scholarship-granting organizations be publicly reported. It took Education Week dozens of emails, multiple records requests, and six months to simply obtain the names of the scholarship-granting organizations from the state.

This is only part of the article. In the remainder, there are extensive quotes from voucher zealot Robert Enslow of EdChoice, formerly known as the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation, whose only purpose is to promote publicly-funded vouchers.

It would be interesting to see an article in Education Week about the long list of states that have voted against vouchers (including Florida and Arizona) but got them anyway, shoved down the throats of the public by voucher fanatics with large wallets to buy legislators’ votes. Such an article–or a different one–would review the studies of vouchers that show they have a negative effect on students’ test scores. How about an article about the “education scholarships” in D.C., which has never found any gains for voucher students, and most recently showed that voucher students lost ground? Or a review of the Thomas B. Fordham study of Ohio vouchers that showed that students lost grounds in voucher schools? Or similar results in Indiana and Louisiana?

We are hurtling back to the early 19th century, not preparing students to live in the present and the future.