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Asking the Wrong Questions about Vouchers


It has been almost thirty years since Milwaukee began offering the nation’s first school vouchers. Beginning with 341 students and a half-dozen or so private schools, the voucher program — which allows low-income children to use taxpayer money to attend private schools — is today used by about 29,000 Milwaukee children at more than 100 private schools at an estimated cost of $213.3 million this school year.

What caught my eye in this Wall Street Journal analysis of the Milwaukee voucher program were the two questions that were asked about vouchers:

  • Do school vouchers work?
  • Did students in the program get a better education?

The analysis found that “vouchers worked best when enrollment from voucher students was kept low.” Returns “diminish until the point when there is little difference between the performance of public and private institutions,” when the percentage of voucher students rises.

The Journal also reviewed standardized test scores of statewide voucher programs in other states and cities. Its “analysis of test results showed the majority of the voucher programs, when compared with public schools, had outcomes similar to those for Milwaukee.”

As I searched for evidence to corroborate this, I noticed that everywhere you look, it seems as though educational vouchers are in the news.

In my state of Florida, lawmakers are seeking to expand the state’s three school voucher programs to five. Two of Florida’s current scholarships (Gardiner and McKay) are paid directly from the state budget. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program “is funded by corporate donations given in lieu of paying state taxes.” Those three programs will pay private school tuition for 140,000 students statewide at a cost of nearly $1 billion this school year. A proposed scholarship for bullied students “would be paid by residents who voluntarily give the $20 they have to pay in taxes when they buy or register a car.” It would divert nearly $8 million from the state budget. A proposed scholarship for struggling readers would give their parents “‘small-time scholarships,’ perhaps up to $500, to pay for private tutoring or other services.” It would be funded directly from the state budget.

In New York City, a single mother with three boys — all with learning disabilities — sued the city to cover the annual cost of about $45,000 to send her boys to one of Brooklyn’s premier private schools for children with learning disabilities. Her grounds were that the city had failed to provide her children with an appropriate public option, as required under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

A publishing executive who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side who likewise didn’t like the special-education programs within the public school system for his 12-year-old daughter also sued the city. Now his daughter attends a boarding school for kids with emotional and psychological difficulties, and the city covers the entire annual tuition bill of $138,000.

New York City spent $55,049 on tuition for each of the 4,435 learning-disabled children attending private schools at the city’s expense last year. It turns out that “suing school districts to pay for private school for learning disabled kids happens all over the country, and it’s a practice that’s been affirmed by U.S. Supreme Court decisions in cases originating in Burlington, Massachusetts; Florence, South Carolina; and Forest Grove, Oregon.” But, as the writer in Reason who reported on that says and asks, “It’s a deeply flawed system. How can we provide poor families the same quality services without bankrupting municipalities?”

So, once again, we have a question about vouchers. But the questions that are being asked about vouchers are the wrong questions.

Instead of asking whether vouchers work, whether vouchers enable to students to get a better education, and how more children can receive vouchers, there are a number of other questions that ought to be asked:

Are vouchers a form of welfare?

Are vouchers libertarian?

Whose responsibility is it to pay for the education of children?

Does this responsibility change if children come from low-income households or have learning disabilities?

Does government spending on vouchers necessarily mean that less is spent on public schools?

Should the government have anything to do with the education of anyone’s children?

Should the government subsidize private organizations?

Do vouchers lead to increased dependency on the government?

Do vouchers lead to increased government regulation of private schools?

Is it conceivable that the government would ever provide money to schools with no strings attached?

Should vouchers be preferable to tuition tax credits?

Is it a legitimate purpose of government to fund anyone’s education?

Is it okay for the government to take from “the rich” and give to “the poor” if the poor really need the money?

How is the provision of education any different from the provision of any other service on the free market?

Are vouchers an intermediate step toward a free market in education?

Will vouchers make private schools more accountable to government than to parents?

Should parents have the choice of where to spend other people’s money?

Don’t parents already have an abundance of choices as to how to educate their children?

Does the fact that some people do not have the money to pay for their preferred education choice justify forcing someone else to pay for it?

Is it the proper role of government to force some Americans to pay for the education of other Americans’ children?

Once government vouchers for education are deemed to be acceptable, no reasonable or logical argument can be made against the government’s providing vouchers for other services. If educational vouchers are legitimate, then why are haircut vouchers, house-painting vouchers, vacation vouchers, dry-cleaning vouchers, auto-repair vouchers, manicure vouchers, theme-park vouchers, landscaping vouchers, teeth-cleaning vouchers, and car-wash vouchers not legitimate?

The truth is, if a voucher system was used for other things besides education, it would be denounced by conservatives and libertarians as an income-transfer program and a subsidy to service-providing businesses. Yet conservatives and libertarians are being told that they should support school vouchers.

As long as the government is funding the vouchers, it is irrelevant whether vouchers work, whether they enable students to get a better education, or whether more children should receive them.

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