What is Wrong with Vouchers?

The rhetoric behind vouchers is that if everyone had vouchers parents could select the best school for their child instead of being forced to go to “government” schools*.

Where does such logic fall apart? There are two main logistical reasons it is really a false promise. One is economic and the other is question of who gets to choose.

The private schools that the elite send their children to cost tens of thousands of dollars a year to attend. I looked up a few progressive private schools and tuition ranged from $20,000 to well over $30,000, more than many private colleges. And the actual amount they spend per pupil is well over the tuition since they raise lots of extra money from alumni. (They also tend to pay their non-unionized teachers significantly less than public schools.)

Since at best the voucher proposals I have seen only pay a small fraction of that, these vouchers will leave the recipients with few real choices without putting out a lot more money. I do not think the public is going to go for vouchers of $20,000+ and have never even heard such figures discussed. If they did, the public education bugets would soar. (And those already in private schools would and should claim they should get the subsidies too). What it would do in effect, at the rates being proposed, is subsidize the middle class and rich to abandon public schools and send their children to private school, and while leaving such choices out of reach financially for the poor.

The other issue is who chooses. Most private schools have selective admission, and limited space. Since unlike public schools they get to choose their students, even if the voucher fully paid for them (which of course it will not), they would still most likely cream the easiest students to teach, leaving the more difficult to teach children in the public schools.

These two factors in combination would end up subsidizing private schools and middle and upper class families at the expense of public schools and the poor that are left in them. This would further segregate our schooling system into the haves and the have-nots.

Since I have never heard voucher proponents either suggest that vouchers should be at the levels necessary to have them cover the full cost of most private schools, nor to force private schools to take those children, I find their arguments disingenuous.

Charter schools, in theory at least, get around both of the above limitations. There is no tuition; schools receive the same funding as the other public schools, and (at least in California) schools cannot select the students. (In reality, though, they often find ways of using other means to “encourage” and “discourage” certain types of students.) So, is this not a solution?

Why I still do not favor even this is that it fundamentally changes the purpose of public schools. Traditionally we have considered the education of the next generation to be a concern of society as a whole. In fact, virtually every society has considered this to be true throughout history. For this reason, locally elected school boards have governed our public schools.

Charter schools and voucher systems make schooling a private consumer choice. In the charter and voucher systems consumers choose among the choices offered them, but have no guaranteed right to have a say about the schooling other than making that choice. Those who do not have children in the schools have no say at all. Private schools are run privately, and do not have to answer to the public. Charter schools usually have to answer for test scores and financial responsibility, but even there it is to the state and not in any direct way to the local public. While charter schools have governing boards, they select their own members of those boards. This gives control of the content of schooling to those who run the schools, often for-profit concerns, but even if not, private concerns of some sort. While our government is not perfect, should I really trust those who have private agendas and do not have to answer to the public to decide the how and what of our next generation’s schooling? Public school boards are elected, and have open meetings; private schools do not have to. Even if the charters do have open meetings, they are often run by national organizations and so are inaccessible and would probably just say, “Don’t send you child here if you don’t like it our agenda.”

Vouchers and charters are about redefining the public as consumers rather than citizens, which is part of a larger corporate agenda to destroy public institutions and the limit the power of the public.

For the above (and other) reasons, I see truly public schools as the only answer for those committed to a democratic society.

*Read between the lines the implication that anything the government does must be poor quality. Yet since parents in the suburbs and rich areas are perfectly happy with their public schools, why is it only the public schools that the poor kids go to that seem to be failing? “Government” schools for the rich and middle class are fine it seems—as long as they don’t have to share them with the poor.

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7 thoughts on “What is Wrong with Vouchers?

  1. Thank you, Neil,
    I run an independent school and am not interested in accepting a voucher, since I wish to remain independent. Independent schooling is the oldest form of schooling in our nation. With respect to your subtext that there is something essentially American about supporting public schools: Is there any greater act of freedom in the world than education our children as we see fit?
    I’m happy we have school boards that govern our public schools, even though I do not know anyone who finds them to be as responsive as independent school governance, which relies on its families directly for funding. I feel like, in your posting, you imply we best all eat the same bread, selected for us by a community board. I deserve a choice.
    I am not “part of a larger corporate agenda to destroy public institutions and the limit the power of the public.” I am, however, free. When we lose the freedom to choose how to educate our children, I’m leaving.

    • I do not see the connection between schools being the same and having school boards. There are many many innovative public schools all around the country. As nice as independent schools are, and I have visited many, and even went to one myself for a couple of years in high school, they cannot afford to serve the poor to more than a token extent, and so are therefore elitist. And I do not agree that you should be free to education students however you want. I believe in public responsibility, and how you educate children matters to society as a whole not just to you or the child.That is where I align myself with thinkers like John Dewey; there is a balance in a democratic society between the freedom of the individual and responsibility to society. Where the line is drawing is complex, but it needs to exist. Drawing that line is part of the democratic process. Complete freedom of the individual leads to anarchy of the worst sort. Should you be free to teach racist ideology? To teach the overthrow of the government? These are complex questions.

  2. Pingback: Nicholas Meier: What Is Wrong with Vouchers? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  3. I agree with Mr. Meier about vouchers.

    But I find his argument about charters ironic since Deborah Meier, his mother was one of the leading advocates for creating options in public education. The school she helped create, Central Park East, encouraged others to create other new schools.

    The New York City District 4 program in which Ms. Meier worked, allowed teachers, parents and community members to create new schools, and schools within schools, was rightly hailed for considerable accomplishments. And the District 4 program did encourage families to make choices among different kinds of schools.

    Ms. Meier went on to create an excellent option in the Boston Public Schools, Mission Hill. Once again, this was one of many options available to families.

    Details of choice plans matter a lot. Some don’t provide transportation. That’s wrong. Others permit schools to have admissions tests. Again, I think that’s wrong.

    But there are few things more American than allowing families to select among various options, within some limits. That’s in part why various public school continue to grow.

    Reply

  4. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

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