School Vouchers: All that Glitters is Not Gold

By Willem Slade

It is becoming increasingly apparent that many observers of public schooling systems around the world are frustrated by a lack of quality--and equality--in regards to the education their children and students are receiving. While their concerns about public schooling are completely valid, any complaints about an inherent problem with public education as a basic concept are few and far between; rather, people seem to be more worried about the way that public education is reaching students and the conditions of their learning environments, which both depend on a variety of factors (poverty is one of them, for example).

A proposed solution to help improve public schooling is to employ a government and taxpayer funded “school voucher system” (quite prominent in countries such as Chile and Colombia), which would effectively grant parents of students the freedom to choose where they would like their children to attend school (within the limits of their designated area). Most commonly, students who receive said vouchers (the system is supposedly designed to provide vouchers to the destitute or otherwise under-privileged) are shipped off to private schools where they are believed to automatically have a better education.

While there is some speculation that a voucher system would be purely beneficial for both the privatized and public sectors of schooling due to increased competition (and other factors), it seems as if there is overwhelming evidence--in favor of the opponents of the system--that actually refutes this claim, contending instead that privatization is the same (or lesser) in educational quality as staying public, and that it is simply wholly unhelpful for all parties involved. Furthermore, this solution addresses the problem with public schooling by simply running away from it, claiming that by sending kids to private schools, competition with public schools will be increased, prompting public schools to improve. This is not to say there is no truth in some of the positive components of the voucher system, but it is evident that the costs do outweigh the benefits.

It seems as if proponents of this idealistic system, including strong supporting figures like President Donald Trump and US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, argue for vouchers as a solution in-part to provide students with the “best” fits for them and their education, though it is still unclear whether or not privatization equates to bolstered academic achievement. The assumption that private schooling is educationally superior is likely what is causing a decrease in the number of students that attend public schools, which is a market failure. There is imperfect information here which is responsible for the glorification of private schools, making public school students want to pull up their stakes go.

Admittedly, there is a problem with many public schools, and specifically the ones located in poverty-stricken areas. There is no denying that many underfunded schools (often as a result of lower taxes being paid) could use a boost in the quality of their educational system and way of delivering it. The social costs that emerge as a result of this are clear: students don’t have necessary resources; public schools aren’t earning funding to be able to provide important materials; and students aren’t learning in properly set-up spaces. Additionally, though there is currently minimal competition between public and private schooling, which could be considered another social cost to some degree, a voucher system would arguably decrease competition even further (despite what proponents claim) because already failing schools would become even more unstable as a result of a reduced student population within them. It is merely wishful thinking to expect that public schools will be able to improve when they are losing resources and funding to private ones as a result of the voucher system.

There is one major piece of imperfect information regarding the solution, too, which seems to be acting as a constraint, hindering further “progress”. What will actually happen to the students who receive these vouchers, and what will become of those who do not? Within this overarching question there are several sub-concerns that continue to poke holes in the solution, stopping it from moving forward (for the most part). Will there be adequate special education systems in private schools?  Furthermore, because there is minimal data that shows the effect that the voucher system has on those left behind, there are no definitive answers about what may happen to them. Will they manage to thrive in schools that have a steadily falling number of attending students?

As aforementioned, this potential solution has both its social costs and benefits, though it seems as if there is far more supporting evidence that is backing up opponents of the voucher program.

For one, proponents of the system, such as choice-friendly parents and our current national government administration, generally believe that increased competition between schooling systems is essential to help improve public schooling. Their collective logic is that by increasing competition between the two systems, public schools will be prompted to step up their game, which is an interesting idea, though I don’t personally expect that it would work. While this group of stakeholders’ heads may be in the right place, it doesn’t seem as if they have accounted for the fact that public schools will rapidly lose funding (and students) to public schools, which would actually decrease competition in the long run because public schools would no longer be able to function properly.

Additionally--and this is a big point of contention--the limited available data that actually exists regarding the effects of school voucher systems on education seems to directly contradict the claims about educational superiority made by many proponents of vouchers. In fact, researchers like Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame and R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky have shared with NPR their findings that the school voucher system does not bolster academic performance for “low-income students” (who the system is supposedly designed for) in grades 3-8. Findings show that in the first two years of the 3,300 students’ (the sample size) time at private schools, their standardized math scores actually decreased (similar to other research being conducted), while their english and Language Arts scores stayed roughly the same as their previous scores in public schooling. Overall, researchers like Berends and Waddington are noticing a trend that a switch from public to private schooling causes academic “backsliding”, though their data also shows that they eventually compensate in scoring (after the first couple of years--if they stay in private school that long) for what they lost. To play devil’s advocate for a moment, however, not much information regarding the conditions of the test or the small student sample size is given, which begs the question whether or not an assumption can be made about this “backsliding”.

Additionally, a 2007-2008 finding by the United States Department of Education shows that approximately 68% of private schools were religiously affiliated or served some specific religious purpose, which many believe violates the necessary separation between Church and State (another reason to not support school vouchers). One could also argue that too much government intervention--employing a voucher system--in people’s education is harmful to the social fabric of locally-run schools.

On the other hand, it is very important to examine the positive effects on public schools that this proposed voucher system may include. A recent study by CATO shows that “ the areas studied, public schools are spending 93 percent more than the estimated median private school.” Though there is limited context here, this data suggests that the social benefit present is that the government and choice-favoring parents have to pay much less overall to send students to private school rather than public school.

Additionally, there is something to be said for more organized, better funded learning spaces. That factor would act as a strong incentive for parents to send their kids to private schools, which is understandable, but doesn’t do anything for the greater good because the service of school vouchers is in fact excludable.

Not only is this service excludable, (meaning that it is not available to everyone) but it is also criticized often, usually rightfully so. Private schools are often condemned for how they seem to cherry-pick the most desirable students, leaving many behind, which is a great potential social cost.

Conclusively, the fact that lower-quality public schools need help cannot be denied, though I do not believe that implementing a voucher system is the proper way of going about “helping to improve public schools”. The evidence regarding the effects that a voucher system has on all parties involved seems to be stacked in the favor of the opponents of this proposed solution. Rather than shipping kids off to private schools, it is evident that everyone needs to come together (with a limited amount of government intervention) to help improve public schooling, one step at a time, so that all students can receive a proper education without having to employ a system that displays minimal benefits.