School Vouchers

[Originally posted on Facebook, March 13, 2017]

Earlier today, I reposted an item from a good friend about HB 610, the so-called Choices in Education Act, sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and two other Republican representatives. Among the noxious provisions contained therein would be the first foray into nationalizing school vouchers. I got a really good, fair, question from a friend we met traveling and ended up writing a lengthy reply, explaining my view on why educators tend to look on them unfavorably. At the end, I’ve also put a link to a good summary of the pros and cons from the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative.

Hi Steve! Thanks for the comment and question. I’ll try to give a typical argument from us public school folks against a typical implementation of vouchers, acknowledging that various wrinkles are possible.

Public schools get a set allocation, $xxxx per enrolled student, from the state. (Many, but not all, schools also get money from the federal govt, with most of that going to support low income and special needs populations.) Parents who choose to send their children to private or parochial schools, are responsible for the full tuition and neither the private nor the public school receives any money from the state.

One argument for vouchers is that it would be more fair to have state education money divided equally among ALL students, including those choosing private/parochial schools. Instead of sending money directly to the schools, the state issues vouchers to parents to pass on to the schools of their choice. More equitable and increased competition to boot. That sounds reasonable on its face, but here are a few reasons we think it is not.

  • State money for schools is already stretched. Assume a small state with a $500 million ed budget and 100,000 students in public schools. That’s $5000 per student per year. Say there are 10,000 additional students attending private schools. Assume the state goes fully with a voucher system, is it going to add $50 million in ed funding and continue the $5000 per student allocation to public schools? Or, is it more likely to make the per student allocation $4545? We think the latter is far more likely. This state’s public schools would have a 9% funding cut and the private/parochial parents receive a $4545 per student windfall to help with their tuition.
    * Giving (mostly) relatively well-off families help with their private school tuition might be more palatable if we also assume that the voucher system gives, as voucher advocates like to claim, public school families more choice and the opportunity to attend private schools too. Especially low income families. But how many spaces for these new students are going to be available in existing private/parochial schools? And how welcome are those new students going to be?
  • Oh, and there’s the small problem that $4545 per year isn’t going to cover the whole cost. In 2011-12, average K-12 parochial school tuition was $8160. Average K-12 private school tuition was $22,440. That’s per year, and certainly higher now. Those vouchers, touted as the ticket to a better education for lower income families, seem more like a cruel tease than a realistic solution. Really, how many middle class, let alone low income, families will find this practical?
  • Finally, how about the competition that vouchers would encourage? Maybe. Maybe there will be a large number of new for-profit schools built. Maybe a large number of educationally sound and professionally staffed and managed schools will pop up from private corporations, lured by the guarantee of $4545 per student from the state. Maybe these new private schools will be subject to the same standards and requirements as public schools. Maybe they will provide all the same services and support to special needs students that public schools have been mandated to do for decades. (Although that may not be an issue if H.B. 610 becomes law and successfully eliminates many of those mandates.) On the other hand, maybe it will look more like Michigan, where Betsy DeVos (Secretary of Education, if you can believe it) has been instrumental in the establishment of the largest number of for-profit charter schools in the nation AND legislation to shield these schools from oversight and accountability.

So, why is the federal House Bill 610 a big deal, since the lion share of school funding comes from each state? This bill is saying that receiving federal funding, in block grants or whatever form it ends up taking, will be dependent upon each state establishing a certain portion of funding to be distributed in the form of vouchers to be used to pay for private or home schools. It’s being called the “Choices in Education Act”, a euphemistic name for what amounts to the first national step toward defunding public schools.

A school voucher is a credit given to parents who want to move their child from a public school to a private school of their choosing. Most voucher progra…