Perspectives in Education- Part 10: School Vouchers

Probably no other proposed program of school reform is more controversial than school vouchers. Teacher unions and liberal groups are steadfast in their opposition to any state program that remotely looks like a voucher program. One of the reasons most cited by civil rights and liberal groups is that this will inevitably lead to blurring the line between separation of church and state and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This line of argument deserves its own entry which will be part 11.

The second most cited reason against vouchers is that they will divert much needed money from public schools which liberal groups contend are already underfunded. This line of thinking is actually doubly false. First, think about this fact: if a state or local government spends $12,000 per pupil annually and then offers a $9,500 voucher to a parent for private school tuition yet all the remaining students in that public school are funded at the $12,000 level, doesn’t that government actually save $2,500 on that student with the voucher? Also, since there is now one less student attending that public school, the per pupil dollar amount will actually go up since funding is constant but the number of students declined. The second fallacy is that public schools are already underfunded. That is a serious mistake born of years of throwing money at the problem with minimal or no results to show for it. The simple fact is that states that had large achievement gaps between low and high income students has not considerably narrowed in the 50 years of federal spending coupled with the 50 years on increased state and local funding. Liberals start from a false set of assumptions: the more money, the better the progress. This line of thinking is patently false. Along these lines, they note that public schools cannot keep up with new textbooks, technology, or attracting qualified teachers. Part of that is a problem of their own making. With more money comes more bureaucracy and overhead. Seventy cents of every federal dollar spent, for example, actually makes it into the classroom. If you decrease the overhead, that is a bonus to classroom level spending. And regarding attracting qualified teachers, that again is a bogus argument. The notion of “qualified” is defined by the state usually through some certification program. Many private school teachers are not certified, yet turn out, on average, a better student than the public school for lower pay.

Another argument is that private schools are not subject to the strict oversight and regulations which persist in public schools. As a result, they argue that the academic program may not be as rigorous as that in public school. This argument is actually laughable and actually self-defeating. The reason a private school can turn out a better student at a lower cost IS BECAUSE of the lack of these state regulations and oversight. Other than assuring these schools are maintaining state educational standards through some standardized testing regimen, short of fraud, how the school gets the results should not be the interest of the state. For example, if a state test addresses some questions about the Civil War in the American History part, that school can discuss and teach the Civil War however they want. They could even teach it from an Afrocentric point of view if they want or whatever method provided the minimum needed to know is learned. But, to argue that state oversight of public schools is somehow an advantage versus private schools is ludicrous at best. And furthermore, if a private school is not performing and if those performances are made public, then the parents of those students can, in essence, vote with their feet and dollars in which case the private school would drop out of the marketplace. Who wants to spend $9,700 on a poor performing private school when there may be another one nearby for about $9,700, or even a better performing public school? This is another instance where liberals seem to have an aversion to market forces dictating outcomes.

The biggest worry of the civil rights community is that private schools, not being under the dictates of the government, would be free to discriminate against students with disabilities, because of low test scores in their previous public school, their religion, or other characteristics. Assuming any of this is true, it would be self-defeating to engage in these actions. For example, parochial Catholic elementary school enrollment is actually declining. I know of very few, if any, Catholic schools that discriminate against a potential student because they are non-Catholic. I doubt there are too many Lutheran schools that are 100% Lutheran in their student body. I know many a Christian who sends their child to private Jewish schools. A private school is not going to deliberately turn away potential tuition for self-survival reasons. Now some existing private schools may have reached their maximum occupancy and are simply not taking on any more students, but that does not infer some disadvantage to a voucher system. The goal is to increase the opportunity for private education for people who (1) are already attending private school and paying taxes to support public schools as a means to alleviate financial pressure on that family, or (2) most importantly, provide the financial means for households with absolutely no means to have the opportunity to send their kids to private school. The goal is not to open the doors of high-priced, affluent, primarily white, exclusive prep or boarding schools to low income parents. A voucher of $8,500 will not go to far for a low income household in sending a child to a school that charges $18,000 a year. This is not some socially-engineered government-run and funded program of integration of private schools.

The final objection is that by allowing these under-performers into private schools, the standards at those schools will be weakened and lowered. Talk about self-defeatism. An argument like this is racism at its worst since it throws in the white flag before the battle is fought. This is like saying the current under-performing student is a lost cause and not worthy of even opportunity. Regardless, the experience of voucher systems proves otherwise. These students do not pull private school performance down; private schools pull student performance up. Just ask any Indiana resident who has taken advantage of their voucher program. Ask any DC student who took advantage of their voucher program before Obama cut off funding. It makes one wonder who the real racists are.

The most obvious selling point of a voucher system is that it provides parents choice in where their school age children are educated. Because private schools can be expensive and because costs vary depending on the grade level, the region of the country, and the methods used, low income parents are effectively locked out of that choice and have no choice other than a failing local public school. That is institutional racism at it worst and one that is ironically the preferred solution of the civil rights community. Their general opposition defies logical explanation.

Obviously with the means to make a choice partially or fully subsidized by the state, competition for those dollars will bring about efficiency. Make no mistake, education is a business and competition in business is the greatest factor in motivating needed reforms. As one article states, “How good would GM be without competition from Ford, Chrysler and foreign auto makers? How good would Dell be without competition from Gateway, IBM, Apple and others?” Competition will squeeze out every bit of efficiency from every dollar expended since public schools will now be competing for students. Perhaps then, public schools will get serious about such things as respect for others, hard work, and discipline. This is what teacher unions fear the most- competition. For too long, public schools have had a monopoly on the education of children. The federal government has only condoned that practice. The dollar amounts make any alleged monopoly by Microsoft look like a piggy bank. So the next time a liberal or a teacher (not always one and the same) bad-mouths vouchers, ask them why they fear the competition.

In keeping with the theme of competition, this will also alleviate the fears of those civil rights activists who insist the disabled or minorities will be shut out and left to the devices of the public education establishment. But look at the example of higher education. College bound students have a wide array of choices based on cost, their life goal, the college’s area of expertise, etc. Likewise, the same can be true of private K-12 education. Private schools may pop up that cater to individual talents or disabilities. Regarding disabilities, the public school system already, in effect, pays for a student’s education if they must be removed from the public school. And the most successful charter schools are those that cater to particular talents be they math, science, creative writing or the performing arts.

Most importantly (and the subject of another entry) private schools simply, for a variety of reasons, get better results. Obviously the greatest factor is parental involvement; their financial burden is clearly visible. It can also be argued that private schools are more accountable to parents and students without the heavy hand of government regulations. The reason is simple. Would you spend $8,500 out of your pocket every year if your child was not receiving a good education? Public schools, because they are a monopoly, do not have this transparency and accountability. There simply is no incentive to undertake needed and proven reforms. Furthermore, private schools have more flexibility in their teaching methods and more exacting expectations of students. The most important factor may be that private schools often teach moral values such as respect for each other and property, working hard, and others habits that transcend the academic rigors and are lifelong skills that work to the advantage of society at large. Public schools, for fear of offending Johnny or Jane, are morally relativistic in their approach. There are objective rights and wrongs in the world and private schools do a better job of delineating them and not blurring the lines. Call it conformity or whatever you like, but it works.

Years and years and billions upon billions of dollars have done nothing to improve educational outcomes. As far as per pupil spending, the United States by far outspends any foreign country for minimal, if any, results. If we approach education as a business operating in the free market, the public schools would not, without needed reforms or a government bail out, survive. We have already had a 50-year “bail out.” The promise of vouchers for private educational opportunity and the mere presence of choice improves not only the private school experience, but the public schools also. This is an all around winning proposition.

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