Why a Chicago school voucher tax-credit program won't ensure student success

Details of the new Illinois school funding agreement, resulting from a bill Gov. Rauner criticized as a bailout of the Chicago Public Schools, remain vague after Mayor’s Emanuel’s press conference today. But talk of $75 million in publicly funded tax credits for private school scholarships in the agreement (as reported by Chicago SunTimes) continues to fuel criticism.

As it should. Voucher programs that allow public money to be used in private or parochial schools fuel materialism in our society, the materialism that makes us believe that the more we pay for something, the better it automatically is.

It’s not clear if the agreement will allow tuition-paying parents to receive tax credits for the thousands they dish out every year. But a voucher program for private schools that garnered the support, naturally, of Chicago’s Cardinal Blasé Cupich, gives parents the false idea that paying for a private or religious education secures a child’s high achievement. It doesn’t.

Research of school voucher programs consistently finds that achievement cannot be guaranteed by putting a student in a private or parochial school.

Funding matters. Absolutely. But in education, we must also remember the human element that affects how well students do.

I admit it. I carry the baggage of my parochial elementary education. At one of the popular Catholic schools in Little Village, I learned to read and write well. No doubt. Math and critical thinking–not so much.

I also learned elitism. Clearly and implicitly, we learned that we were better than the public school students who didn’t wear uniforms to school and who didn’t cover their books. On Mondays after the public school kids had been in our rooms for religious education over the weekend, teachers complained about the “mess” they left behind. Or because they moved the desks out of the straight rows. Or because they had, supposedly, gone through the lockers that did not have locks. Public school students were always referred to as “those kids.”

Still, I did well at the school. I even got double promoted. But looking back, it wasn’t because I received an outstanding education. It was because the school built my confidence as a student with blue ribbons and certificates and picked me regularly to read at school ceremonies. As a quiet student, I had good recall skills, big ideas, and I liked—I loved—to learn.

What that parochial education provided, I learned decades later, was the cognitive development in literacy and the noncognitive factors that built my confidence as a student (even if I was ridiculously shy or socially awkward or insecure).

According to research from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research, “cognitive factors refer generally to the ‘substance’ of what is learned in school, namely a student’s grasp of content knowledge and academic skills such as writing and problem-solving.”

The noncognitive factors that also make a difference in a student’s academic performance, according to their research, include student “beliefs about their own intelligence, their self-control and persistence, and the quality of their relationships with peers and adults.”

These noncognitive factors should be at the forefront of parents’ decisions about schooling—not how much money they can invest, falsely believing tax-credits or vouchers will secure academic achievement.

Academic mindset matters, according to the Consortium’s research, because a student must believe “I belong in this academic community.”

Private and parochial schools succeed at creating an academic mindset with traditions, celebrations, and relationships–especially with alumni. But private and parochial communities can also be faulted for elitism, for pushing the idea that certain kids belong while others don’t.

In my parochial school, a family’s income was clearly visible.  With uniforms, we could tell who had a washing machine at home or extra money to buy more than one shirt.  The affluent kids noticed that my gym shoes came from Payless Shoe Source.

This contributed to or worked against a student’s self-esteem.  School picture day when we didn’t wear uniforms was also judgment day.

Getting a tax credit to a private or parochial school isn’t automatically accompanied by the strong sense of self that students need when learning, especially in selective school settings.  Remember: private and parochial schools pick their students.

Another noncognitive factor in the Consortium’s research that can’t be bought is social skills. “Cooperation, assertion, responsibility, and empathy” prove essential to any student who wants to succeed academically.

One element that private and parochial schools usually develop well is assertion. The culture distinguishes itself from other schools with colors, t-shirts, car stickers, celebrations. These build in students a confidence that allows them to believe in who they are as students and solidify their place in that academic setting. But, again, there are no guarantees.

Students who graduate from private or parochial schools don’t necessarily succeed because of the education they received.

They also succeed because all of the other factors that usually accompany their educational experience: involved parents, a stable home and income, a network with opportunities, expectations to succeed, safety.

A Washington Post article reported, unfortunately, that “poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong.”

But let’s be honest about public schools, too. Some are failing to meet the needs of students.

In 1986, when my family couldn’t afford to send me to the popular all-boys Catholic high school on the South side, I was supposed to go to my neighborhood public high school in Little Village. No way.

So, because of my reading scores, I went to a public neighborhood high school in the West Lawn community. I turned out OK.

Public schools fearful of losing students to private and parochial schools under any school voucher program would do well to consider the role noncognitive factors play in their students’ experiences.

And parents ready to find their child’s educational savior through a tax-credit voucher program need to remember that money cannot buy everything.

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