We've seen some increased attention to school vouchers the past few days, with Michelle Rhee praising them in the Daily Beast as a way to sell her new book or Eric Cantor using them as a sign of a "softer" side to the GOP. The voucher idea never really went away since it was popularised by neoliberal hero Milton Friedman; as we know all too well, bad ideas never die.
So let me devote some time to the case against education vouchers, a corporate reform proposal that seeks to undermine the mission and functioning of the public education system.
Many of the arguments which I will outline are targeted against the replacement of the public education system as a whole with a school voucher system. Some voucher proponents do not claim to support such total replacement; however, the intellectual roots of the movement lie in just that. Milton Friedman’s main contention, in Capitalism and Freedom, was that the financing of schools should be divorced from their administration. He did not believe that the state should be in control of the administration of any school and that education should be governed by market principles. School voucher proponents do not support creating a separate funding stream above and beyond that which currently goes to public education; rather, the funding for vouchers inherently reduces that allocated to the public school system as a whole.
Before going into my more detailed objections, let me raise what is perhaps the most basic objection: that vouchers would not improve education for all students. Charter schools do not perform better than public schools as a whole; sometimes, they perform worse, sometimes the same, and sometimes better. Consequently, shifting to privately run (but publicly financed) education would not yield benefits in improved instruction. Do vouchers help students in isolated instances as Michelle Rhee highlighted in her piece in the Daily Beast? Yes, they very well can. However, they do not improve the quality of the education of the rest of the students in the community who may not have the ability to travel to a farther school or may feel more comfortable staying in their neighborhood. Taking funds away from the public schools to finance the vouchers would not only not improve the public schools, but it would likely hurt them through deprivation of resources. A properly democratic education reform should benefit all students, not just a select few.
The wide income gap in the United States is often the elephant in the room in corporate education reform discussions. As public schools are financed primarily through property taxes, affluent neighborhoods tend to have better schools. Let's look at my home metro area of Philadelphia for instance. In 2008-09, Lower Merion spent $15,484.33 per student on instruction, and almost 95 percent of its high school graduates planned to go to a two- or four-year college. Philadelphia, where the rate of child poverty is 33%, spent only $6,345.26 per student, and only 49 percent planned to pursue higher education.
Let's return to the main point, i.e. the inherent flaws of the voucher system (in no particular order):
(1) Operating Costs/Capital Improvement: There is more to a school than just instruction as one must take into account the cost of the building and grounds and their maintenance. The operating funds for a private school—like a private university—come in part from an endowment, grown from years of fundraising. A voucher system, consequently, would put public schools at an immediate disadvantage, especially if the voucher is only designed to cover instruction (as it likely would). Who would pay for capital improvement?
(2) Means Testing: Milton Friedman, one of the earliest proponents of school vouchers, believed that, ideally, such vouchers should only be given to children whose parents could not otherwise afford the school tuition. Consequently, the transformation of the public education system into a voucher system will provide a slippery slope into means testing, in which a child’s eligibility to receive such state support for education will depend on his/her parent’s income. Means testing brings in additional bureaucracy, making the system run even less smoothly, and the threshold at which people would start receiving school vouchers would likely be pushed lower and lower. Means testing destroys the universalistic nature of the American public school system, which is the reason for its purported (but never yet fully realized) role as an equalizing force.
(3) Education for Profit: school voucher system would likely stimulate the growth of for-profit elementary and secondary schools much in the way as we have seen the rise of for-profit universities. For-profit colleges are notoriously corrupt, failing to provide students with the educational attainment or career potential that they promise. Moreover, if we accept the idea that primary and secondary schools should be training people with the critical thinking skills necessary for informed citizenship, then we should be wary of allowing for-profit institutions to control this process. Likewise, one could not be sure that the voucher would go toward instruction rather than toward profit; surely, no one would run a for-profit school if not expecting the latter.
What would the presence of for-profit education companies do to the education system? Consider the following scenario.
A for-profit school runs a marketing campaign to get students to transfer and pushes out all of the competition in a community. Now that its monopoly has been secured, it spends little of money gained through vouchers on actual instruction and pockets much of the money for profit. However, parents no longer have a choice because the for-profit school is the only one within a reasonable commute. What would the government do? The government cannot shut down private enterprises, so the school would be able to continue to exist. And there would be no other school in the area to provide the better education the students deserve.
(4) Curricula: As we established, one of—if note the—prime purposes of primary and secondary education is the provision of the knowledge and critical thinking abilities necessary for an informed citizenry. Under a voucher system, state funds would likely support schools that oppose the scientific consensus on evolution and climate change or teach whitewashed or revisionist histories to suit ideological or theological ends. The oversight over curricula that exist in a public education system would no longer exist. One wonders whether the religious conservatives who want vouchers for their schools would be as eager to see state funds going to schools that preach Marxism or anarchism.
(5) Church-State Separation: A common and warranted criticism of vouchers is that they would provide state funding to religious schools, thus violating the separating of church and state. Rhee, in the Daily Beast article mentioned above, tries to refute this criticism by making an analogy to Catholic-affiliated hospitals, which can take Medicare or Medicaid funds. Catholic hospitals, although they are overseen by Catholic leadership (often with nuns or priests on the board), are not religious corporations and are not parts of a parish. Parochial schools are administratively linked to a specific parish. Catholic-affiliated hospitals do not preach doctrine even if doctrine may influence their practices. Religiously affiliated universities, which might receive federal funds through Pell grants, also differ from parochial schools in that, again, they are not administratively tied to a parish or diocese (or other geographically defined religious community). Seminaries, on the other hand, are often directly connected to religious institutions, and state funding should not go to the training of clergy.
(6) Tyranny of the religious majority: A voucher system could easily fail to protect minority rights. Take, for instance, the example of a town that is heavily Catholic. Under a voucher system, much of the education money would likely to go to a parochial school. However, what would happen to the non-Catholic population? They might not be a large enough group to support a non-religious school because of the market pressures pushed onto the schools and may end up having to attend the parochial school. The state would then be paying for the indoctrination of a single faith upon those of other faiths.
(7) The Flaw of the Market Model: The intellectual roots of school vouchers lie in the application of the market principle to education. Voucher proponents celebrate the role of “choice” and “competition” in schools in order to provide each student. However, if we believe that every child deserves the best possible education, how can there be “choice” or “competition”? Shouldn’t every school provide an equally excellent educational program?
When determining whether a good should be public or private, a key consideration is whether individuals’ relation to the good is one of quality or one of quantity. The difference between educational needs, like health needs, is a function of quantity, or intensity: the number of hours devoted to tend to the needs of each individual to reach their peak understanding/health. The difference is more that of intensity than that of style or expression. The public sector focuses on needs; the private sector focuses on preferences. Granted, the distinction is not rigid; housing is an example of a need shaped by preference. That, of course, is why the housing market is a market but that the government provides aid for people to own or rent homes if they cannot afford to do so. The market, thereafter, allows each individual to pursue self-expression after his/her general needs have been met.
If one wants an element of choice in education, one can look to school board elections, in which the community has a choice about who has control over the direction of the school.