14 Pros and Cons of School Vouchers

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School vouchers are certificates of government funding. It allows a student to attend a school that is chosen by their family instead of being required to go to an assigned public school. Funding is usually reserved to a specific year, semester, or term. In the United States, some school vouchers can be used to attend private, religious, or alternative schools. Homeschooling expenses can sometimes be offset by voucher programs as well.

It is an idea that is carried by the conservative mantle in the United States today, but was first introduced by liberals in the 1960s. School vouchers were initially proposed during the desegregation era in public schools to stop the effects that racial inequality was having on the education of children. The idea was to breakdown the monopoly that the public education system had created.

The advantage of a school voucher program is pretty straight-forward. Not every student lives in a place where the public school district provides a quality education. By having access to a voucher, families can make a better choice for the education of their children because they have more than one choice available to them.

The disadvantage of a school voucher program is also pretty straight-forward. There is no guarantee that an increased school choice will improve the educational opportunities for a child in some communities. If you’ve got the choice of 5 schools instead of 1, but they all rank poorly in terms of education quality, then no real benefit from the voucher can be achieved.

Here are some additional pros and cons of school vouchers to think about as well.

List of the Pros of School Vouchers

1. School vouchers invite extra competition.
When more students are in a community, demanding access to a private school, then more private schools are expected to emerge. This creates increased competition at a local level to compete for voucher dollars. That forces the school to maintain a high-quality education experience and keep costs low to create a student population.

2. It eliminates the idea of a “controversial” educational environment.
Households with a school voucher get to choose what type of school their student gets to attend. That means families who want their student to be encouraged to pray openly can do so. Families that want in-depth subject materials taught to the students can find a school with that curriculum. Gifted and talented students can find a school which will challenge them consistently. Each family can choose the option that is right for them.

3. Accountability is possible through funding and attendance.
Although private and religious schools are often exempt from mandatory testing, there are still ways to hold them accountable. Parents that are unhappy with the education their child is receiving can choose a different school with their voucher. Although the type of accountability has higher short-term costs, there is the potential of cost-savings over a long-term implementation of a voucher program because market forces should control the quality of the education.

4. Is parental choice really government-sponsored religion?
If the government provides a family with a school voucher, is it they or the family that is supporting a religious education? An argument could be made that the government is only supporting families with a voucher program and allowing them to choose how their own tax funds are being spent.

5. Educating a child in a voucher program usually costs less.
Since 2002, The Heritage Foundation reports that the state of Florida has been providing $3,500 scholarships to students who qualify as being disadvantages through a tax credit program. This program cost the state about $12 million, but it saved local public school districts $53 million in costs. That was a net savings of $42 million that went pack into the public education system.

6. It creates the possibility of a charter school network.
Charter schools eliminate the concerns that some communities may have about private schools and voucher programs. A charter school is still a public school, which means no tuition is required. These schools are established by community members, parents, and teachers. They have some of the same exemptions as private schools, but the best charter schools also require high levels of parental involvement. Voucher programs that allow this type of transfer also alleviate concerns on religious school funding by the government.

List of the Cons of School Vouchers

1. Most school voucher money goes from a public school to a private school.
School vouchers take the portion of taxpayer money that is allotted to their student to pay for an alternative school choice. In most instances, this money goes from a public school to a private school. When this happens and the school is a religious school (Christian, Jewish, Islamic, etc.), it becomes a potential violation of the separation between church and state. Why? Because taxpayer money goes to funding a religious education.

2. Students perform equally well with or without a voucher.
Parents may find greater satisfaction with the schools they choose for their children, but a school voucher doesn’t improve the actual performance of the child. In a study conducted by Patrick Wolf for the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, it was found that students in a DC voucher program performed no better in reading or math with a voucher than without a voucher. Similar studies in Milwaukee, where 80% of approved voucher schools are religious, showed that public school students outperformed their voucher counterparts.

3. There are rarely accountability standards for private schools.
A private school can still deny admission to any student or family they choose. Public schools are not given that luxury. Even when taking vouchers, a private or religious school can mandate religious criteria on their staff, shame students for behaviors (real or perceived), or discipline children for taking a stand that is different from their political of religious views without any recourse for the families involved.

4. School vouchers don’t always cover the full costs involved in a transfer.
For a low-income family, the school voucher must cover all costs related to the transfer, but far too often it does not. Many voucher payments don’t even cover the full cost of the tuition, much less transportation costs, mandatory fees, books, uniforms, and school supplies. A majority of the families in Cleveland, OH who were granted vouchers didn’t use them because they couldn’t afford the additional costs.

5. There isn’t a tax savings associated with school voucher programs.
The tax money used for a school voucher is going to be spent one way or another. The idea that taxpayers save money is false. Public schools might save on operational costs because of fewer students, but they still have fixed labor and maintenance costs. The assigned per-student payment still exists, just paid to a private or alternative public school instead. In Milwaukee, property taxes have even been raised to offset the funding losses that voucher programs have caused.

6. Standardized testing and other performance indicators are not required.
Many private schools are not required to report student grades, testing results, or even publish the curriculum they are using. No communication with parents is required in many circumstances. Many schools are even exempt from standardized testing requirements and other standards that public schools must meet.

7. Market forces don’t always work.
Market forces may work in some communities to create excellent education opportunities, but that isn’t always the case. The legislation for school vouchers can be so poorly written that those who don’t need the vouchers benefit the most from it. In Georgia, voucher legislation was written by using the word “enroll” instead of “attend” to enable scholarships. That enables households that are already sending their children to public school to pocket the scholarship in cost-savings, according to a 2012 report from Rolling Stone.

8. Market forces can also dilute the educational resources of a community.
The idea of competition to drive down costs in education may be a benefit, but a race toward the bottom can also be a real negative for school voucher programs. So many private schools may be created in a community, in fact, that there are not enough teachers or administrators to fully staff the school. That means open positions are filled by “warm bodies” instead of the best people for the job. The end result is a lesser education experience.

The pros and cons of school vouchers show us that a well-designed system, employing some market forces, but still requiring some level of additional accountability, can benefit communities. If the additional costs of transferring to a different school can be alleviated, then low-income families can possibly benefit from educational choice.

Unfortunately, the opposite tends to happen. Low-income families have no recourse. Those with means receive the most benefits, even though they don’t send their children to public schools anyway. Poor schools create more choices, but not better educational opportunities. In some communities, taxes go up instead of down.

How do you feel about the idea of school vouchers?