The Problem with School Vouchers

The idea behind school vouchers is fairly simple – the state writes you a check for what it would otherwise spend on educating your child in a public school, and you apply that amount toward the cost of a private school tuition. At first, vouchers seem like a great idea. No child should ever be required to languish in a failing school, and all parents should have the freedom to send their child to whatever school they desire. I absolutely agree with these two ideas. Nevertheless, there are 5 reasons why vouchers are a bad idea.

1. The First Five Minutes. If we created a voucher program, we’d have to grandfather the 30,000 kids already in private schools in Kansas. At $4,200 per student, the first five minutes of a voucher program would cost our state $126 million. If we can’t pay for the kids we have in schools now, we certainly can’t afford to adopt 30,000 more. If the goal is to rescue kids in failing public schools, it should not begin with a $126 million check to the private schools.

2. Sorry, We’re Closed? The KC Star recently reported that most private schools in Kansas already have a waiting list. So while vouchers would immediately benefit the kids inside the private school system, there is little hope for those outside the private school system. Even if private schools would eventually expand to welcome all students, a voucher program requires the subsidization of the entire private school system before the first needy kid gets help. If the goal is to help kids trapped in failing public schools, the solution cannot logically begin with footing the bill for private schools.

3. I Thought You Hated Socialism? I hear a lot of conservatives complain about how unfair it is that the government gives welfare checks to those who don’t want to pay for their food, housing, or health care. They argue that the poor should simply work harder to escape poverty instead of relying on government handouts.  During the overhaul of the welfare system during the Clinton administration, welfare as we knew it was transformed  into a temporary assistance program with a 5 year lifetime limit and a requirement that the recipient find a  paying job of 30-55 hours per week within two years or forfeit any further assistance. This was a pretty good idea. I’m sure voucher proponents who supported the new welfare restrictions would readily support similar restrictions for vouchers: 1) income limits of no more than the federal poverty level of $10,000 per year, 2) demonstrate ongoing attempts to find success within a failing school for two or more years, and 3) the school receiving the vouchers would be required to accept new students and comply with federal assessment restrictions. If the goal is to rescue kids from failing public schools, then voucher supporters ought to be comfortable living with the same restrictions that they thought were appropriate for other government assistance programs.

4. Accountability and Oversight. It has become trendy for voucher supporters to point to the lack of oversight or accountability as a primary cause of failure in public schools. The brainchild of the pro-accountability movement is No Child Left Behind, which I wholeheartedly support. I support it so much that I think no school receiving government funding of any sort ought to be exempt, including private schools. After all, who knows what those private school teachers are teaching kids these days? Consequently. any school receiving a voucher should be required to comply with the same federal standards of accountability that apply to public schools. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If the goal is to help kids trapped in failing public schools, then the government should protect its investment in private schools by demanding results.

5. Parental Backlash. There are two reasons why parents invest in private education: to avoid the brutality of public schools and to embrace the morality of private schools. Vouchers blur the lines of both reasons, and will likely threaten the order of things. Parents pay good money to keep their child away from corruption, and when the school starts importing it by the busload from the other side of town, parents will probably object. If the goal is to help kids trapped in failing public schools, it will have to be with the blessing of conservative parents who are comfortable with “urban influences” (a tongue-in-check term) invading their contrary way of life.

Voucher programs are an oustanding way to rescue kids trapped in failing public schools. If that’s who benefits, then I support them. But I suspect that the pro-voucher movement is populated by politically active parents who use the false idol of the disadvantaged kid as a ruse to punish the public schools and pay for the private education of their own children. Just a hunch.

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10 responses to “The Problem with School Vouchers

  1. Josh, while I agree with msot of what you have written I wonder what experience you have had with teaching in the low income schools. It is my understanding that you teach in a very affluent area.

    I am not knocking your views. I consider many of your postings to be brilliant. Yet I would challenge you to visit and understand the KCK school system (dirt poor), or any other inner city school system, and then offer your concerns/criticism/remedies.

    I am very familiar with the Kansas City, MO and Kansas City, KS versus the Johnson County school systems. All of my children benefited from tax payer supported top quality schools in Johnson County, while other area schools failed because of voters resisting raising taxes. No way would anyone with money send their children to Kansas City, MO or KS schools; the operative words being “with money”.

    You have been a super star, literally, among the students whose parents strongly believe in education. What are your remedies for the inner city failing schools whose parents, probably singular, don’t even have an email address?

    The secret to education is beyond memorization … it is teaching a student how to think for themselves!
    As your Dad (very proud) I challenge your thinking again!

  2. Bob, as someone who is also “very familiar” with the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools (because I work there), please allow me to challenge YOUR thinking. If you look at Newseek’s ranking of top high schools in the country, you will notice that Sumner Academy in KCK, at 109, is the top high school in the metro area, far higher than any “Johnson County” high school (the next highest school was around 350.) Students from Sumner attend the best colleges in the country, and are successful. So, why is it that, in your words, “No way would anyone with money send their children to [KCK] schools?”

    Am I arguing that KCK schools are all better than schools in Johnson County? Heavens, no; despite the progress the district has made (from state assessment scores in the single digits 12 years ago to scores in the 60s today,) the district still has real work to do, in order to guarantee every child a quality education. But there are also many, many children receiving a fine quality education in KCK, and the district has received national recognition for its improvement efforts. And even “people with money” are beginning to recognize that . . .

    And Josh, here’s the real problem with vouchers: “It is the transfer of public money into private hands.” Americans live under the mistaken notion that public schools are solely for the benefit of the parents of the children who attend them. In fact, our system of schools was designed to benefit the entire community, to recreate in each new generation citizens who could function in a democratic society. Today, only 1/4 of all households have school-age children. Thus, three of us are subsidizing the education of the fourth household, and we all have a vested interest in that education. Vouchers turn our system of public education into a private commodity. To do so is to misunderstand history, and what it means to be an American.

    • David,

      Granted that you have an interest in how American children are educated, but why does your interest trump a given parent’s interest in how her child is educated?

  3. Josh,

    I want to respond to a few of your points.

    1) Nothing inherent in vouchers requires that they be given to every student in a school district. The D.C. voucher program, for example, exclusively targets 1,700 kids from low-income households. If your underlying premise here is that not to give a voucher to every student in a district would be unfair, that is a separate issue.

    2) You write, “Even if private schools would eventually expand to welcome all students, a voucher program requires the subsidization of the entire private school system before the first needy kid gets help.” This is simply not true. The Department of Education’s report on the impact of the D.C. voucher program after three years (http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20094050/pdf/20094050.pdf) shows clear gains to the students in the program.

    3) At root here is a question of whether a child’s entitlement to an education is different in kind from a poor individual’s entitlement to income assistance. Education tax credits do not face the same issues which you identify here for vouchers.

    4) Do you think NCLB has been a success? When I ask this I’m thinking of states responding to the incentives created by NCLB by relaxing what it means to be ‘proficient’.

    As for your suspicion that “the pro-voucher movement is populated by politically active parents who use the false idol of the disadvantaged kid as a ruse to punish the public schools and pay for the private education of their own children,” I think you will find some evidence against it in the words of these parents with kids in the D.C. voucher program: http://reason.tv/video/show/777.html.

    • Ian,

      Thank you for your comment – I’m elated that other readers have the opportunity to hear both sides of the issue. You and I are in agreement on many of these points. Vouchers are an excellent tool for helping impoverished kids escape failed public schools. The DC program is a model for the rest of the nation, and its impact is clear and measurable. I support the DC voucher program.

      But Kansas isn’t DC, and my blog focused on the particular voucher program proposed by Kansas conservatives in response to Kansas schools. Kansas public schools consistently rank in the top ten states for standardized test scores, including tests like SAT and ACT. None of the area districts has a failing school, but all of the area districts have plenty of Blue Ribbon schools. Our county is one of the wealthiest in the nation – and it’s politically active parents from Johnson County with kids already in private schools that are pushing vouchers as an option for ALL parents. They may point to the DC program to illustrate the benefits of vouchers, but they aren’t looking to use the DC model. So I’m going to stand by my assertion that the voucher program desired by Kansas parents would immediately subsidize private education.

      I’m also going to stand by my assertion that a child’s entitlement to education is NOT different than a poor person’s entitlement to income assistance. This is why I support the DC program for impoverished kids in a failing school system, but not for wealthy parents wanting to subsidize their child’s prep school. Beyond that, vouchers aren’t education tax credits, at least not in Kansas.

      I think NCLB has been an outstanding success, and I’ve been one of its biggest detractors. You are absolutely correct that states have relaxed their definition of proficiency, which is why I’ve spent the last five years working hard toward national standards for every school in America. The difference in the teaching profession before and after NCLB is night and day. There’s much more work to be done, but we have to start before we can finish.

  4. Ha! I have both David and Bob beat. I AM a graduate of Sumner Academy. While I will agree that I received a top notch education from a Kansas City Kansas school I will also admit that I had to be INVITED to attend said school. Although considered a public KCK high school it it more akin to a private school. While I am proud of Sumner’s 109 ranking, I believe you are comparing apples to oranges in this scenario. I moved intentionally to the school district I live in for the sole purpose of my childrens’ education – my daughter was Josh’s student. I am quite grateful for the means to afford my children the educational opportunity. My point being – given freedom of choice I did not choose Sumner even with it’s 109 ranking.

    Also, I don’t feel the essay was criticizing the inner city school system as much as it was criticizing the voucher system. I partially agree with Josh ultimate assessment that “…I suspect that the pro-voucher movement is populated by politically active parents who use the false idol of the disadvantaged kid as a ruse to punish the public schools and pay for the private education of their own children.” I don’t believe parents are trying to “punish” the public schools but wholeheartedly agree that they are looking to fund the private education of their own children.

    I KNOW many of those single parents in KCK and even with a voucher their children would not attend private school. Most are just too damned busy and tired and frankly uninterested to look into it. Money won’t change apathy.

    And before you jump my ass saying there are parents in KCK who care very much about education let me just say there are always exceptions and I imagine their child is doing quite well in school and is probably at Sumner.

  5. As someone who has spent a great deal of time working with folks from the KCK district, including their administrative team on a number of projects, I can attest that KCK is one of the best districts in the state of Kansas. In particular, their focus on professional development is incredible.

    I am a true supporter of every one of the KCK schools. Their challenges are great, but their response is even greater.

  6. I have nothing to do with Kansas City schools. i am however very interested in school vouchers.

    Dave makes some good points but he is missing the boat when he says turning education private is unamerican. Any private venture is a risk and is by definition American.

    Josh , i think Ian summed up your post pretty good.

    1) 126 million dollar check is alreay being paid to the public schools, there will not be a bran new check being written only the transfer of hands.
    2) not sure where you were going with this but it would be inevitable some public schools closed. The good thing about that is there are plenty of people ready to make that private venture and open a new one. Being from Detroit we have seen it first hand were there has been offers to revamp and open new schools privately…. predictable the city turned them down.
    3) your right, im conservative and i believe our government has an obligation to the poor
    4) I to am for NCLB, it may not always be implented correctly but it is a step in the right direction. This is nothing but a simple follow our rules or dont get our money answer.
    5) this is completely wrong… your jumping to conclusions. But lets say your right and the inner city kids come and corrupt the new school. The beauty about vouchers is the parents can then make that decision if that is the best place for their kids, if its not then they can move them.

  7. David,

    I now live in Jacksonville, FL. We have two to the top twenty public schools in the county! It is called cherry picking. Jacksonville established IBU schools and selected the very best of the best to attend these so-called magnet schools. BFD! Surprise-surprise they performed well! Compare those to schools in Jacksonville’s NW and North quardrants. Yuck! Shootings, gangs, mostly urban, etc.

    I am pleased by Josh’s comments that the KCK schools have improved. Are these or your school results indicative of urban schools in general?

  8. I just wanted to say to Mr. Anderson, your point on the success of the DC model and it not being particularly proposed by the legislature to be right on. I don’t agree with you completely but I think you give a fair and reasonable look at the issue.

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