News: CJ Exclusives

Courts, Regs Inhibiting School Choice

'Overbearing application procedures' create barriers to participation

Court challenges and burdensome procedures have had dramatic effects on participation in school choice programs around the country, according to a report recently issued by the Friedman Foundation.

The report, Using School Choice: Analyzing How Americans Access Educational Freedom, was issued in October. It evaluates the process parents must go through to participate in school choice programs, rating each for ease of access and use. It also collects, for the first time, historical data on participation in school choice programs.

Greg Forster, author of the report and a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation, writes that overbearing application procedures “can create barriers to participation if they are onerous or confusing.”

Court challenges similarly discourage participation by placing a program’s future in doubt.

“Where there is reasonable chance that a program might be cancelled on the whim of a judge, possibly in the middle of a school year, parents likely will take into consideration the disruption that might cause their children and the problems they might have dealing with their local schools after being forced to return there,” Forster writes.

Of the 14 school choice programs rated in the report, five — Milwaukee’s voucher program, Maine and Vermont town tuitions, Arizona’s tax-funded scholarships and personal tax credit programs in Illinois and Iowa — are rated “excellent” for ease of access, while two, the Florida A+ voucher program and the Washington, D.C. voucher program, received “poor” ratings.

Under the Florida A+ program, the state assigns each public school a letter grade based on its performance in the previous school year. If a school gets an “F” grade, or has had one in any of the three previous years, students may apply for a voucher to attend a private school.

The program received its poor rating based mainly on a narrow two-week window to apply for a voucher. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that parents do not even know whether they are eligible until school grades come out.

While the number of students participating in the program has increased since 1999, the percentage of students participating has declined. One reason is no schools were eligible for the program in 2000-01 or 2001-02, so no new students were able to enter the program during that time.

Still, even though there were eligible schools in every subsequent year, participation once again declined after a slight increase. Forster cites lack of media coverage as one reason for the decline.

“Because parents only have a two-week window to apply, media coverage is crucial,” Forster said in a telephone interview. “If parents don’t hear, then that two-week window is ticking and parents don’t know it. Of course, as the program becomes old, it’s going to be covered less.”

But another major factor has been a court challenge to the program. Under Florida law, government programs are allowed to continue under court challenges if the state is appealing to a higher court. So the program had no real danger of being shut down until it reached the Florida Supreme Court in the summer of 2005. So the very real possibility of the program being ruled unconstitutional and being shut down may have depressed enrollment.

As of now, the Florida A+ program is still waiting on a decision.

“In the school choice movement, we’re fairly experienced with courts not taking into consideration the fact that parents need an answer to plan their children’s lives around,” Forster said. “To the judges, it’s less immediate.”

Enrollment in other successful school choice programs around the country has been depressed by court challenges.

When Milwaukee’s voucher program allowed religious schools to participate in 1995, a court injunction kept them from doing so. In 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in favor of participation by religious schools. After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the case in November 1999, the program under went the greatest growth of any program in the country rising from 2.1 percent in 1997-98 to 20.5 percent in 2003-04.

Though several school choice programs have recently passed without legal challenges, Forster said that’s not necessarily an indication that the courts will stay out of school choice issues, especially if the Florida program is struck down.

“Legal challenges to vouchers are going to be with us for a while,” he said.

By the same token, a favorable decision in the Florida case will make it harder to bring legal challenges elsewhere, Forster added.

The Washington, D.C. program received its poor grade for its burdensome application process. Parents must appear in person to apply, they must bring with them proof of D.C. residence, proof of the child’s current enrollment, all tax forms and proof of parenthood or guardianship.

The application is 17 pages long and asks for a detailed breakdown of income.

That said, the program doesn’t have much history because it was just implemented in the 2004-2005 school year. During that time, there were more slots than applicants. But that has been reversed for the 2005-2006 school year.

Robert Enlow, the Friedman Foundation’s executive director, said the burdensome application process for the D.C. program was not nearly as much of a discouraging factor as the Florida A+ program’s narrow two-week window.

“The D.C. program is not the worst of the lot. The worst of the lot is the Florida A+ program, in my opinion. It’s one of the more difficult,” he said in a phone interview.

Enlow credits the Washington Scholarship Fund, the group administering the program, with overcoming those obstacles.

“They’re meeting with every single parent to help them do that,” he added.

So, after looking at the data, what is the future of school choice in the U.S.?

“As new school choice programs continue to come online, we have to be very careful about the regulations that are written, especially if the programs are being administered by state departments of education that may be hostile to them,” Forster said. “State education bureaucracies are generally hostile to school choice because it’s detrimental to their financial interest.”

Sam Hieb is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.