One of the most controversial issues in American education today is the idea of vouchers, or other forms of public funding, for private school students. It is most controversial when including religiously run schools are included in a program. In this essay I hope to address most of the common objections to a private (and public) school voucher system.
Everyone will leave the public schools Actually every time I hear this argument my gut reaction is that this person is talking my side. Obviously if the public school is so bad that no one who can afford to leave will stay then making it possible for more students to leave is clearly the best thing that can happen. This is only an argument against vouchers if you believe that public or government run schools are a valid goal in and of themselves. In other words, for this argument to be valid one must first be convinced that non government schools are intrinsically bad and that attendance in government run schools by all students is a high priority. Few actually believe this.
Vouchers will kill public schools Once again this is an idea expressed by people who appear not to have much faith in the public schools. But it is more involved then that. This complaint has several components. One part is the belief that vouchers will cause a critical mass to leave the public schools. The difference is that in this case the voucher opponent believes that the specific people who will leave are more of a problem then the number of people who will leave. The fear is that the people who really support education will leave and leave the public schools "defenseless" and without the volunteers they need. One is often tempted to ask these people if what they are really saying is the they will leave. Or perhaps if what they are really afraid of is that they might actually have to do something positive for education themselves.
I believe that most people will keep their children in government schools under a voucher system. This includes most of the PTA presidents and other activists. However, even if a school volunteer does leave there will still be plenty of people to pick up where they left off. It may even be a positive if a voucher system brings more people into active support of their schools.
As for losing the support of pro education people, I believe that the main reason that people whose children attend non government schools don't support government schools is because they have been rejected by the system. If the system supported parents whose children attended non government schools as strongly (and financially) as they require them to support those who choose government run schools they would not need to reject (or attempt to reject) every tax increase for education. On the contrary, by implementing a voucher system more people will be likely to support the education system as it begins to support all children.
Vouchers take money from the public schools at a time when they need more money. This claim is often made by people who also complain that a voucher system will remove students from the schools. The fact that they ignore that a voucher will removed expenses at the same time, and often at a greater rate, then it will remove funds suggests that they haven't thought things through. Yes, income will be reduced but so will expenses. In fact in many cases the cost reduction will greatly overcome the income reduction. In many cases, expensive building plans will no longer be needed. In almost all cases class size will be reduced at marginal cost.
Voucher systems generally do not take the cost per student and apply it to a private school. So even allowing for spending money of children who are already out of the system cost savings will usually outweigh income lose especially after accounting for buildings that will not be built, additional teachers that will not have to be hired, and additional administrators who will not be required. At the same time the people working in the system will be able to work better for the students who remain, the buildings will be usable with more flexibility, and overall the education experience for students who remain will be better. Not worse.
"I don't think I should have to pay for other peoples choices" This is a tempting argument at first. After all paying for other peoples choice doesn't sound like a fair system at all. The problem is that it completely ignores that they current system forces everyone to pay for a parents choice to send their children to the government run school. Some parents choice the government schools because they are lazy. Some because they believe that it is the best school for their children. All to many really do not have a choice because they don't have the money to pay for anything else. Shouldn't everyone have a choice? People who reject support for parents who choose other schools must refuse to accept a system that taxes those parents or be blatantly hypocritical.
The public has a voice in how the public schools work in return for
their taxes and since the public would not have a voice in private schools that
is why they should not get tax money This is another tempting argument
and it works hand in hand with the "paying for the choices of others"
argument above. The problem is that the majority of the voters
control how the government schools are run. The majority has no option but to
take it or leave it. Freedom from
Voucher systems violate the separation of church and state
This is an especially popular argument from people who are not active in a
religion themselves. The First Amendment states that the government is not to
Most people in America are aware of a great moral void. There are regular cries for the teaching of values in our schools. Government run schools, by their very nature, are constrained and inhibited from teaching values because they can not do so without teaching beliefs that are either religious or are religious like enough to offend someone. Growth of religious schools, which are more likely to expand then to spring up new, would very likely help improve the overall morality of the country. Most people with strong religious beliefs, though they would prefer their own religion, would probably agree that some religion is better then none at all.
"I'll support vouchers but only if they
These are all variations of the same general demand. If non government schools are the same as government schools one will support vouchers. Generally these demands are based on ignorance of how private schools really work or just a way of throwing barriers in the way of a voucher system. Obviously, if there was not a great need for schools that are different from government run schools there would not be a demand for vouchers. But on to the concerns.
Many people still have the illusion that private schools are a segregated
system designed to support a class system. That they will admit only
I regularly hear the complaint that even if poor people have the money because of vouchers that private schools will still not take them. This theory is not supported by any evidence and contradicts my own experience working in private schools. In fact, one of the most elite private schools in America, Phillips Academy (Andover MA) has a significant population of poor minority students on full scholarship. Being able to do the work is more important then having money or skin color.
This leads to the complaint that only good students will get into good schools. People tend to forget that there are government run schools that only take some students. There were some 7,000 students who took the entrance exam for the New York City public high school I attended. Only 1,800 of us were accepted. The same is true of New York's other admissions exam high schools. Students are turned down by magnet schools all over the country. Sometimes this makes educational sense. In general, the range of ability of students in government and non government schools is pretty much the same. In fact it is quite common for students who are having academic or behavior problems in government schools to be transferred to private schools to address their problems. Movement goes the other way too. The fact is that no one school is just right for every student. Making more options available gives all students a better chance to attend a school that meets there individual needs.
Demand that private schools follow all the same rules, teacher certification or set curriculum for example, is another part of this demand. The fact is that even in public schools there is a realization that many of the rules are too limiting, that they inhibit good education. We see this in the movement for charter schools or schools within a school where the normal rules do not apply. Diversity and freedom from some of the rules in what education reform is largely about. Demanding that private schools conform to rules that we know not only don't work but are counter productive to education is not pro education.
But schools will open that will teach racism (or some horrible other thing)! This is the ever popular call to fear. Do I want to support schools that teach racism? Of course not. Will a voucher system make it possible or easier for hate groups to open their own school? Probably. But it will makes things no more easy for those people then it will for people of good will to open schools that fight racism. The number of good schools that teach good things that vouchers will help are far greater then bad schools. Few people really want to teach hate and fear. Just as we accept that our judicial system sometimes fees guilty people as a cost of protecting the innocent so we should accept that a few bad schools will open as a price for the many more good schools that will open.
Besides, government run schools are already doing a better job of teaching and fomenting racism then any racist group could begin to do. Increasing enrollment at religious schools where students are treated as brothers and sisters in God regardless of color, class or race would be a positive step towards reducing discrimination in America.
The conclusion, I believe, is clear. The pro education, pro democracy stance is support for vouchers. The good far outweighs the bad. The costs are exaggerated while the benefits are often downplayed.
Copyright Alfred C Thompson II 2007