Issue Report: Education vouchers

Are education vouchers good public policy?

A voucher system is an alternative method of funding education. Instead of tax revenue being distributed to state-run schools, parents are issued directly with vouchers, which can be spent on education in any school, privately or publicly run. Schools therefore compete for pupils and the funds that come with them. Such a scheme was originally put forward by Milton Friedman in the 1950s and now systems of voucher funding are in place in several American states and European municipalities. The idea was also briefly the basis for a reform of UK nursery funding. In the United States, President Barack Obama has said that he is open to the idea of education vouchers, if they can be demonstrated to improve student achievement. Many questions frame the public debate over education vouchers. The debate asks what role the state should play in the education system. Should parents have more choice over where their children are educated? Or should state funds remain under state control? Do choice and competition through education vouchers help improve academic achievement? Do they help improve schools themselves? Do choices and competition improve the efficiency and effectiveness of schools? Are education vouchers a way to enable “creative destruction” of bad schools or bad teachers, and is this a good thing? Can schools be compared to the market place, where competition is valuable? Or, do schools have distinct characteristics that differentiate them from the commercial market place, such as the importance of a stable educational system to national vibrancy? These and other sub-debates and pro and con arguments and quotes are framed below.

Choice: Do vouchers introduce beneficial choice to education?

Vouchers honor right of parents/students to choose school

Parents and students have a right to choose what school they will attend. Forcing a child to attend a public school, even if it is not a healthy and productive environment for them, is wrong. Vouchers afford children and their parents are right to choose which school best fits their needs and desires. It affords greater decision-making power and freedom to citizens, instead of the state, on a matter of tremendous importance to their lives and futures. This is righteous in principle.

Vouchers improve choice/access despite private school right to deny

It is true that private schools can deny students they believe to be unqualified. Nevertheless, vouchers generally improve student and parent choice and access to private schools by making it more affordable. Vouchers need not make student access 100% perfect. It is enough that it simply improves choice and access.

By giving parents a choice, vouchers engage parents more.

Parents who have greater choice are more likely to be involved in their children’s schooling. Vouchers demand that a parent choose and control paying for the education of their children, thus initiating their involvement in their child’s education.

Students/parents with vouchers make better choices than bureaucrats.

The voucher program in New Zealand benefited students in both the private and public schools by putting funding in the hands of students and parents instead of bureaucrats. Parents will almost always make a better decision in choosing a school. The success of education vouchers in New Zealand is a good example of what it can achieve elsewhere in the world.

New Zealand's education vouchers worked

Vouchers lack choice as private schools can exclude students

Vouchers do not provide all public school students with a choice to attend private schools. Private schools can, inherently, deny applicants entry. The main problem with this is that many of the most needy disadvantaged groups are already being turned away by private schools, so education vouchers may not provide them with any greater choice or access to private schools. Public schools are open to all students, and this is why the disadvantaged should be helped through the public school system.

Minnesota Education Association (An NEA affiliate). – “Vouchers fail to offer the ‘choice’ that proponents claim. The ‘choice’ remains with the private schools that will continue to pick and choose the students they wish to accept and reject. Public schools open their doors to all students.”[1]

Students choice of public schools can be improved without vouchers.

The argument for vouchers relies on the premise that there is not enough choice in the public school system. This may be true. But, it is possible to have enhance choice for students/parents between public schools without vouchers. By simply allowing some or all students to attend public schools outside of their schooling district, for example, choice can be enhanced. By not considering these simple mechanisms for choice within the public school system, vouchers overshoot.

Poor often can't afford private schools, even with vouchers

Given the limited budget for schools, a voucher system weakens public schools while at the same time not necessarily providing enough money for people to attend private schools. Some private elementary and high schools are nearly $20,000 – $30,000 per year. Most voucher programs are in the range of $5,000 to $15,000. Many disadvantaged students and parents will not be able to pay the difference – ranging from $25,000 to $5,000. This means vouchers do not necessarily offer the disadvantaged the opportunity and choice to attend expensive private schools.

Competition: Is the competition introduced by vouchers a good thing?

Competition via vouchers makes schools more efficient/effective

Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman argued for the modern concept of vouchers in the 1950s, stating that competition would improve schools and cost efficiency. They introduce competition by giving parents and students the choice to leave bad schools in favor of better schools. This compares to the far less competitive status quo situation in which students are locked into schools in their district. The argument goes that competition forces schools to act more resourcefully, creatively, and efficiently as a means of enhancing their competitiveness relative to other schools. If they do not do this, they will be less competitive, lose attendance and tuition, lose quality students and teachers, and possibly be forced to close. In short, vouchers introduce competition, which provides an incentive to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

Education vouchers force schools to hire competitive teachers.

Schools that face choice-based incentives must increase the quality of the education they provide, which causes them to seek and keep better teachers and hold bad teachers to account. If they do not do this, they will lose students and tuition, and may be forced to close. Vouchers, therefore, provide an incentive for schools to increase the quality of the education they offer, which improves student achievement and success, and generally improves the long-term economic vibrancy of a nation.

Cooperation, not competition, is best way to improve schools.

Cooperation between schools, city and local officials, communities, and educational groups is the best way to improve schools. It ensures that information and resources are shared and that everyone works together to improve the educational system collectively. Competition is much the opposite. It ensures that school administrators do not share information that may undermine their “competitiveness” and distracts attention away from the most important thing – how to best educate children – and focuses more on how to out-compete other schools. When combined with testing regimes (such as exists in No Child Left Behind), it often creates a perverse obsession with “teaching to the test” as a means of producing a higher average test score compared to other schools. This may have no relation to the quality of an education.

Vouchers damage public schools that can't compete with private schools.

Public schools are unlikely to be able to respond to increased competitive pressure generated by vouchers.[2] This is not the fault of public schools – they are not designed to “compete”. Public schools are designed to provide an education that reflects the educational priorities of a society; this is not something that competition can necessarily foster. Private schools often have a very different mission and are designed to compete, in some case purely for profit. It is wrong to attempt to mix non-competitive public schools and competitive private schools in a competitive voucher system. Obviously, public schools will lose, undermining the common values driving the public education system.

Economics: Are education vouchers economical, efficient?

Market-based education vouchers help supply demand.

Under a student voucher system, where demand exists for education from the parents that would rather attend a different school, entrepreneurs are free to open and invest in new schools to accommodate demand. Supply demand, in this sense, is generally a good thing in its own right. People that want something are happier if someone is allowed to fulfill their desires. But this is only possible under a student voucher system, where students can move freely between schools and schools are free to accommodate this fluid demand.

Vouchers take advantage of more efficient private schools.

State-run schools are more expensive per head than private equivalents. Large government-run bureaucracies are notoriously inefficient. Even without voucher schemes many private schools currently charge less per head than the funding state schools receive – evidence that education can be provided more efficiently by the private sector.[3]

Public schools are a public good; should not be subjected to market.

Education does not fit well into a fungible supply/demand system. The main reason is that the supply of schools cannot adjust quickly to year-to-year changes in demand. Schools cannot be built overnight or within even a single year. And, schools cannot rapidly adjust their budgets because demand rises and falls dramatically from one year to the next, via school vouchers. Schools are, rather, long-term investments for long-term demographic trends, with the objective of supplying the public with a stable public good – education. This stable supply of education should not be subjected to the whims of shifts in year-to-year demand.

Profit motive of private schools is costly, undermining vouchers.

Private sector schools require extra funds as the profit motive has to be met. They are, therefore, not necessarily cheaper for the taxpayer. Vouchers that go toward private schools may, therefore, simply go toward lining the pockets of the investors of private schools. This is neither a fair nor an efficient use of taxpayer money.

Inequality: Do vouchers help fight economic, ethnic educational inequality?

Vouchers give poor a choice of schools, lower inequality

School vouchers allow for greater economic diversity by offering lower income students opportunities to attend previously unaffordable private schools. School voucher proponent and Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman observed that the poor have an incentive to support school choice, as their children attend substandard schools, and would thus benefit most from alternative schools and access to private schools. In turn, increasing the poor’s access to better schools helps increase their chances of success and decreases inequality.

Education vouchers improve minority academic achievement.

There may be small achievement gains in mathematics for the African-American and Hispanic children who use vouchers. The main reason is that it increases access to better schools and better educations, which are a key factor in improving academic achievement.

Voucher combat cultural genocide occurring in public schools.

Some proponents of school vouchers, including the Sutherland Institute and many supporters of the Utah voucher effort, see it as a remedy for historic cultural genocide committed against demographic minorities by compulsory public schools. This is because public school standards and tests are established, usually, by non-minorities that are insensitive to the different cultures of minorities. They insensitivities ultimately undermine these minority cultures, sometimes intentionally, in a form of “cultural genocide”. Vouchers offer choices and alternatives that counter the monopoly of public school standard-bearers and those committing “cultural genocide”.

Vouchers counter social division between public/private schools.

The division between private and public schools is very prominent in society, based largely on the socio-economic ability of parents. Vouchers help combat this by providing disadvantaged groups with the opportunity to attend private schools.[4]

Even with vouchers, private schools can still exclude certain groups.

Because private schools can exclude students, even ones with vouchers, there is a tendency for them to exclude certain socio-economic, ethnic, or disabled groups. Vouchers do not help prevent such exclusion and discrimination.

Education vouchers worsen economic and ethnic divisions

"The Case Against Vouchers". National Education Association

“A pure voucher system would only encourage economic, racial, ethnic, and religious stratification in our society. America’s success has been built on our ability to unify our diverse populations.” The general logic for this is that vouchers would often be used by parents and students to attend schools with like-minded students, whether black, hispanic, catholic, or disabled. They, therefore, allow for the separation of groups, and the problems of misunderstanding and division that follow as a result.

Vouchers worsen gap between private and public schools

"The Case Against Vouchers". National Education Association

“Americans want consistent standards for students. Where vouchers are in place — Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida — a two-tiered system has been set up that holds students in public and private schools to different standards.”

School vouchers mostly benefit the affluent

A voucher system that offers choice to parents is used most by affluent parents that are already engaged in the education of their students and whom would prefer that their child leave a failing school. Poor and disadvantaged parents are less likely to take advantage of vouchers. The result is that affluent students go to better schools, while poor and disadvantaged students generally stay in underperforming schools. Instead of helping the disadvantaged, vouchers actually end up leaving them behind.[5]

Voucher funding often goes to those that can afford private schools.

Voucher are like a discount coupon for those who can already afford the full cost of a private school education. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 76% of the money handed out for Arizona’s voucher program has gone to children already in private schools.[6]

Educational achievement: Do vouchers help improve educational achievement?

Voucher competition spurs schools to improve academic achievement

Voucher competition between public school districts spurs public schools to improve student outcomes. In Chile, attending a private school subsidized by vouchers is associated with increased standardized test scores.

Competitive school voucher programs help increase graduation rates.

Children that op-out of schools that are not serving them well are more likely to graduate than those who remain at schools that are failing them.[7] In Columbia, for example, school voucher programs were reported to have increased secondary school completion rates by 15-20%. [8]

Little evidence that vouchers improve academic achievement.

In Chicago, there is little evidence that attending school choice programs provides any benefit on a wide variety of traditional academic measures, including standardized test scores, attendance rates, course-taking, and credit accumulation. In the Netherlands, where parents are free to choose the school for their children, higher competition is associated with lower student achievement in upper secondary education.

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