School Choice Part 3: School Vouchers

July 27, 2019 —

School vouchers allow parents to use public funding toward their child’s tuition at a private school of their choice. Vouchers are currently offered in fourteen states and Washington D.C., and while the dollar amount of a voucher varies from state to state, the general idea is that tax dollars that would have paid for an education at a public school will instead be spent at a private school, covering some or all of the student’s tuition.

More than 60 years after vouchers were proposed by economist Milton Friedman as a way to improve the American education system, they remain the most controversial and contested form of school choice. Nationally, leaders in several states are seeking to change the map of available voucher programs, following a wave of newly elected governors from both parties who promised on the campaign trail to support or oppose them. And voter sentiment on this topic does not always fall clearly along partisan lines. For example, Arizona voters re-elected Republican Governor Doug Ducey by a healthy margin in 2018, but defeated a voucher-like program he supported by an even wider margin

The research on voucher programs today yields mixed results that both sides can use to fuel the debate. But public opinion polls suggest it might not even matter what the research says. According to a poll analyzed by The Atlantic, the word “voucher” itself is a trigger, and people are less likely to support the use of public money for private school tuition when it’s described explicitly as a “voucher” program.

In response, some voucher advocates are turning to programs like education savings accounts and education tax credits, which work largely the same way as vouchers. For example, the American Federation for Children (which listed Betsy Devos as its chair before she became the Secretary of Education) has expanded its message to include a broader set of voucher-like programs that serve essentially the same function and are seeing an increase in public support.

As voters and state legislatures continue to expand or quash voucher and voucher-like programs across the country, let’s take a closer look at both sides of the issue.

We need more public funding for voucher programs.

Milton Friedman, often called the grandfather of school vouchers, was known for his belief in the power of free market competition to solve problems. He argued that the role of government should be reduced to make way for the efficiencies of free markets, and proposed putting public education funding towards a voucher system that would require public and private schools to compete.

Many contemporary supporters of voucher and other school choice programs continue to use Friedman’s language of market competition. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who has supported voucher-like programs in the past and who won a closely watched election last year, wrote on his campaign website that “In the private sector, choice enhances competition and ultimately gives consumers the best product at the lowest price. The same can be true for education.”

While voucher programs today serve a small portion of the U.S. student population, there is some consensus among researchers that the market competition introduced by programs like vouchers, charter schools, and tax credits is leading public schools to improve.

Unlike charter schools, which operate under the academic and accountability standards of the public school system, private schools have a high degree of freedom from government rules and regulations. Supporters of vouchers argue that this freedom is precisely what allows them to experiment with innovative education models and improve student learning and achievement.

Most voucher programs in use by states today are limited to specific student populations, such as low-income students, students with learning disabilities, and students in rural areas with no neighborhood school. These programs give students in low-income communities access to other options besides a low-performing neighborhood school, and help students with special needs afford schools that can provide extra support. Supporters also say that by increasing access to private schools, voucher programs help integrate schools by creating student populations that are more diverse racially and socioeconomically.

We need less public funding for voucher programs.

Opponents argue that vouchers only exacerbate the problem of inequity in education. By siphoning money away from public schools, vouchers leave the vast majority of students who do attend public schools trapped in a system without the resources to meet their needs.

Teachers unions and public school advocates oppose vouchers and the privatization of education generally, and challenge the idea that free market competition will improve schools. They say the only way to ensure every child has access to a high-quality education is to invest in initiatives that directly improve our public school system, like teacher training and retention, small class sizes, and books and equipment.

Critics of school voucher programs also say that these programs hurt low-income students and students with special needs by taking them out of public schools, where federal funding comes with regulations that guarantee students certain rights and protections from discrimination. According to one analysis, less than half of the voucher programs in use today provide protections for racial discrimination, and even fewer states provide protections for students based on religion, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity. If supporters of vouchers can point to evidence of learning gains in students who transfer to private schools, critics of voucher programs can point to evidence of private schools cherry-picking the students they enroll to achieve better results.

Furthermore, the vast majority of private schools are religious schools, and some states, like Ohio, allow vouchers to be used at private schools with religious affiliations. In the 2002 Supreme Court case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Ohio’s voucher program was challenged on the grounds that it violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from advancing or favoring any religion. While 96 percent of students in the Ohio voucher program attended religiously affiliated schools, the Supreme Court ruled that the program did not violate the establishment clause because funding was not restricted to religious schools. Still, many critics hold that public funding should not be made available to religious schools, especially when these schools sometimes discriminate against students on the basis of religion.

Voucher and voucher-like programs have spent their share of time in court, and with state legislatures and public opinion divided, a national consensus seems unlikely anytime soon. Continuing to move the conversation forward are Illinois, where the new governor attempted to wipe out vouchers in his first budget, and Florida, where a new voucher program hopes to succeed where others have failed.

So, should vouchers be expanded, phased out, or replaced with similar alternatives? Below are a few resources to help you learn more.

  • Overview of how vouchers work from EdWeek
  • Series about the impact of voucher programs from NPR
  • Data about voucher programs from EdChoice, a pro-voucher advocacy group founded by Milton Friedman
  • The Case Against Vouchers by the National Education Association
  • Official position of the National PTA on vouchers

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This article originally appeared in the July 27, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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