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Thursday, November 13, 2008

School Vouchers, An Overview (Part 2)

" I add this, that rational ability without education has oftener raised man to glory and virtue, than education without natural ability." - Cicero

As promised, the conclusion of the previous post.


The Anti-Voucher Arguments

1. Competition

Although many goods are better provided by the free market, opponents of voucher programs claim, education is not one of them. Direct competition for tax dollars would encourage schools not to develop innovating new ways of educating students, but rather to devote increasing amounts of funding to marketing and recruitment, while providing the minimum amount of educational quality necessary to attract students.

Additionally, as in other highly regulated markets, such as medical care, 'asymmetric information' problems may exist. In other words, parents may not know what an appropriate measure of 'quality' in education is, or they may not be able to determine the validity of claims made by schools.

As competition relies on the open market to set prices, it is almost certain that different programs will be available at different prices. If voucher programs are set up so that schools are paid a set per-student fee, parents would likely be required to pay the difference themselves, and thus schools would become stratified by socioeconomic status, with wealthier children receiving better educations. Conversely, if voucher programs pay either whatever is asked by schools, or if prices are negotiated between school administrators and government representatives, we no longer have a market based system; prices will become arbitrarily large in the first case, and the second case essentially puts us back where we started with publicly run schools.

2. Improving the current system

Another central pillar of the anti-voucher argument is that many of the benefits promised by voucher programs do not actually require such a program to exist; instead, they can be reaped by simply fixing the current system.

School choice programs already exist, both through charter school programs and through direct 'district wide' school systems, where students can attend any one of the districts public schools. For example, although primary and secondary education in New York City is run by a single Department of Education, different systems are in place in different boroughs. In Manhattan, the Bronx, and some areas of Brooklyn and Queens, students are not automatically sent to a specific high school, but must apply to the schools of their choice.

Such programs, opponents of voucher programs argue, deliver the benefits of competition promised by voucher programs, without many of their failings.

3. Subsidizing the wealthy

A central pillar of the pro-voucher argument is that, by giving parents a say in where their tax dollars are spent, vouchers offer parents and children a choice in where they will attend school - not necessarily so, opponents contend.

From an article by Greg Palast, author of Armed Madhouse, '[a]ccording to No Child Left expert Scott Young, 76% of the money handed
out for Arizona's voucher program has gone to children already in
private schools." (NOTE: As the article begins with a description of the various civil rights that the Bush administration has supposedly taken from US citizens, and proceeds to call NCLB everything from blatently racist to a tool of class warfare, I must be skeptical of this number. Personally, I'll give Mr. Palast the benefit of the doubt, and point out that even if the true number is different, there's still an important conceptual point to be had.)

The argument says that, in systems where private schools can still charge whatever they want, it's likely that, even with vouchers, lower income families that couldn't afford private schools still won't be able to afford them. Thus, children from wealthier families who were already in private schools will continue attending, but with government subsidized tuition, while children from poorer families will be left in public schools with even bigger financial troubles.

Of course, there are certain to be some families for whom private school will be affordable with the adoption of vouchers, but opponents claim that private schools can still discriminate based on "on the basis of prior academic achievement, standardized test scores,
interviews with applicants and parents, gender, religion, income,
special needs, and behavioral history" (from the NEA's Talking Points on vouchers).

4. Separation of Church and State

From a legal perspective, opponents of voucher programs argue that, as, according to one source, 85% of private schools are religious, voucher programs amount to an unconstitutional governmental subsidization of religious groups. (Strangely, I haven't seen much from voucher proponents claiming that requiring tax dollars to be spent on secular public (and especially charter schools) amounts to unconstitutional discrimination against religious groups.)

While many opponents may believe this whole-heartedly, at least as of 2002, the US Supreme Court does not. In the 2002 case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the court constructed a 5-part 'Private Choice Test,' ruling that for a voucher program to be constitutional (quoted from the linked Wikipedia article):

- the program must have a valid secular purpose
- aid must go to parents, and not to the schools
- a board class of beneficiaries must be covered
- the program must be neutral with respect to religion
- there must be adequate nonreligious options

In the particular case argued, the court ruled that since non-religious schools were available, and parents were not required to choose a religious institution, the program was constitutional.

Of course, this ruling could be challenged, or the ruling as is could be used to argue that, if a specific program does not pass the Private Choice Test, it should be dissallowed.

5. Other arguments

As with the pro-voucher camp, there are many other arguments made in opposition to vouchers. Among them:

- Decentralized control of education may lead to disparities in education and educational quality.

- The creation of voucher programs may ultimately lead to more government control of private schools, and possibly to the teachings of the religious groups who sponsor many private schools. Some critics who espouse this argument oppose public funding of education altogether, on ideological grounds, and oppose voucher programs as well as the very existence of public schools.

- The use of free markets and consumer choice to allocate taxpayer money removes accountability to the actual payers (i.e. citizens in general), whereas the current public system keeps schools accountable to both federal and state governments as well as the local populace through the existance of school boards, and local referenda on budgets.

- On empirical grounds, opponents argue that there is no conclusive evidence that, all else equal, private schools actually do a better job of educating students, or, even if they do, if those benefits will be seen under various proposed voucher plans.


To conclude: as with many ideas, voucher programs seem great in theory, but may not actually work in practice.

There is empirical evidence on both sides of this argument (the literal question of "do voucher programs work?"), but results are often clouded by issues such as selection bias, methodological differences that make results incomparable, and other questions, such as "how do we define quality in education?"

The free-market conservative in me definately recognizes the possible benefits of actual competition between schools, but there are many troubling potential problems with essentially all voucher programs - personally, I think the most troubling is the possibility that vouchers will be largely spent on children who are already in private schools.

Then again, the conservative in me asks, "you mean, its a good thing that these people are paying for education twice?"

Once (or, if) we've agreed that education should be provided to all through a taxpayer funded system, it should simply be a question of asking what the best delivery mechanism is, and putting that in place. There are definite issues (not necessarily problems, but issues, certainly) with the current system, including the way allocation and pooling of funding affects quality, the effect of teachers' unions, the 'double taxation' of private school, and how, if at all, we should be using quantitative testing (standardized or not).

Hopefully, as more voucher programs, charter schools, and public system innovations are tried, and we gain access to more information on the results, the best course will become clearer.

For one particuluarly interesting example of this, take a look at The Equity Project (official site, Wikipedia article) -- the basic idea is to pay teachers $125,000 a year, and use teacher quality as the main driver of educational acheivement. The school is set to open September of 2009.

- Marcus Tullius Tiro

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