The Voucher Battle
Public Debate Over Privatized Education
by Mark Karadimos [Updated April 24th, 2005]
Those of us who work in the field of education are experiencing it with a perspective that is very different than those who view it from a distance. Education and teachers continue to be under fire from many sources. It has become a political target and the issue of vouchers is being used to bludgeon that target. This article is in part an ongoing debate on public versus private education (see Public Education Revisited).
Let it be said there is absolutely nothing wrong with education as a topic of discussion whenever it may spring up. In fact, not discussing education or apathy is likely to be the biggest difficulty the public endeavor has to face. The problem is education has become a punching bag. Education remains a mystery to America's citizens, which may explain why the notion of vouchers is a long-standing jab against public schools -- enabling 300 tax-supported voucher students in 1990 to climb to 11,538 students in 1999 .
There is a belief that public schools are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. Certain members of society believe education could be better managed privately. Some elements of society, taken from high caliber media sources, have resorted to taking cheap shots.
For instance, The Washington Post  reported that transferring a number of African-American students to private schools through a voucher program has allowed them to increase their scores on a standardized test. Of course there was never any mention of comparing the socio-economics between public and private schoolers in the study. There was some serious doubt that the original research was slanted because it was founded by known conservatives who favor vouchers. Also, factors such as parent motivation was never investigated and a small sample size could very well have skewed the data.
Listening to various sources, we might be tempted to think public education is incapable of being dynamic. These sources do not realize that states like Illinois are beginning to mandate new certification guidelines, which require teachers to continuously take courses, attend seminars, construct conferences and go to workshops. Public teachers have been doing this before the mandate but it might be necessary to force private teachers to do the same if private schools choose to accept vouchers.
Moving past the sensationalism, we might be able to gain insight to the philosophy behind vouchers using a rough outline of Joseph L. Bast and David Harmer's argument .
- Education theory supports the notion that parental choice is a key factor in determining parental involvement in a student's education, and parental involvement is powerfully linked with student achievement.
- Economic theory supports the notion that vouchers would deliver higher quality services, more customer satisfaction, and lower prices. Support for vouchers is widespread among economists, including at least five recent Nobel laureates. People who understand even rudimentary economics tend to support vouchers because of their promised efficiency gains.
- Political theory supports the notion that services the performance of which is often highly subjective and interpersonal are poor candidates for political oversight and management. In those areas, bureaucracies and regulations engage in a fruitless attempt to achieve accountability.
- Public opinion polls reveal that substantial majorities support a parent's right to choose; most parents would choose a private school over a government school if they could afford to; and most parents believe government schools are doing a poor job with the resources they are given.
Part of the Bast and Harmer position is that of impartiality. If an education is designed to make students critical of government institutions, public education may make this facet of education impossible due to a conflict of interest. Such a view assumes that teachers cannot operate free from the imagined tyranny of an often laughable state bureaucracy. The view also ignores the role of the government agencies which would regulate private schools that receive vouchers and the impact of business dollars on privately funded educational institutions.
The voucher claims do not go unheard nor unchallenged by the AFT and the NEA. Let's begin with the AFT's information .
If parental choice is a predetermining factor in education, then someone needs to explain to parents that private schools do not have to accept certain students. Even though a parent may choose a private school, the school can turn around and reject the student for a number or reasons which includes the need for specialized services, poor ability levels, improper behavior, etc. Public schools have to take all students.
It is widely accepted the bulk of private schools that would receive vouchers will be Catholic schools. The AFT has found many Catholic schools to spend the same amount or more per pupil than public schools but does not have to pay for special programs such as special education, lunches, buses, etc. This indicates that public schools can be economically equal or superior to private schools.
Another money issue is accountability. Private schools are not held to the same standards as public schools. Standards of safety, testing, curriculum, teacher certification and discipline are optional. Private schools listen less to parents than they do their owners and this runs opposite to a model of parental involvement.
The NEA happens to support the AFT's arguments but does so while looking at test cities across the nation . Milwaukee's program is unable to beat the public schools in testing and fiscal responsibility. The Cleveland program slightly outperformed public schools but only in language arts during the second year of the program. There is also some research that shows vouchers may increase segregation by socio-economics and race.
Alternatives to Vouchers
Douglas Dewey offers other approaches to the voucher debate by offering the following alternatives, which may be equally controversial :
- Repeal compulsory attendance laws. The popular cause for their repeal is that children who do not want to be in school are not doing much learning and are disrupting the learning of those who do want to be in school. Without compulsory attendance laws, the state would have no power to accredit teachers, establish curricula, or define a school. Under those conditions, a whole range of tax-related schemes that enable families to keep more of their own money.
- Encourage home education. The need for educational institutions leads to school zones, districts, boards, and departments; buses to get to them; and massive infrastructures to keep everything humming. And group instruction gives us the fragmented, depersonalized, dumbed-down, and expensive factory curriculum. All of which adds up to thousands of extra dollars per student each year. Emerging technology and the successful example of a million home-educated children will continue to make this perfect indictment of government schooling a growing and viable option for some families.
- Liberate the poor. Businesses, foundations, and individuals contribute to a fund that pays a portion of tuition to help low-income families send their children to the private schools of their choice. In all the programs, even the poorest families are required to put up a goodly share (typically half or more) of the tuition themselves, and they do.
- Exodus. Religious conservatives, libertarians, and others should, instead of trying to make government schools a little less hostile to traditional sensibilities, shake the dust from their feet and leave. The more people assume personal responsibility for their children's education, the more it will come to be seen as a simple and manageable duty common to all parents.
- Educate. We need to shake people's confidence in the idea of government schooling, not reassure them. Americans need to know that we were more literate, skilled, and civic minded before government schooling was imposed in the mid-19th century than we are today and that the people, politics, and philosophies that launched government schooling are not necessarily the noble things we were taught they are in government schools.
Critiquing the Alternatives
At first glance, Dewey's alternatives to vouchers are unsettling, especially if the reader is a public school educator. However, the thrust is sound because he seeks to restore confidence in the individual's ability to take personal ownership of his/her own education. Isn't this the ultimate goal of education? Maybe coddling the public into mainly passive roles has built educational systems that disenfranchise children.
Unfortunately, Dewey's rationale for educating the public is flawed. Americans were not better educated in the middle 1800's as he claims. Education was an experience open to the elite during that time. Now education is no longer an option for members of society; it is crucial.
Many people would also rightfully argue with Dewey first point and insist all members of society be educated. It may not be to our best interest to simply abandon certain segments of society. After all, if society depends on an informed electorate, it would be to our best interest to mandate education for everyone.
Other Views on Vouchers
Nevertheless, this report on vouchers would be incomplete without mentioning two very cynical sides of this issue. First, venture capitolist Tim Draper will spend more than $20 million trying to prime California's educational system for vouchers. Even with the vouchers, most recipients would still not be able to cash in on the vouchers, making them usable only to the wealthy who already send their children to private schools . Second, The Atlantic Monthly's piece on vouchers unjustly slammed AFT and NEA leaders on their voucher views by leaving out key points that have been easily explained within this article. The Atlantic Monthly piece painted an inaccurate picture .
There is a theory that certain political activists would like to use vouchers to contain the costs of educating children. They believe vouchers will cause (mainly parochial) schools to pop up, which happen to pay teachers less than their public school counterparts. If previous evidence in this article is true, why then do many private schools spend nearly the same amount of dollars per pupil as is done in public schools and not handle lunches, buses and special services? Since teachers are paid less and services not rendered, asserting vouchers to save tax dollars is obviously doomed to failure. Vouchers may then widen the already huge salary gap between teaching and non-teaching professionals . Consequently, this would harm -- not help -- education because college students would no longer position a career in education as their first choice. Education would become a less desirable career and it would be filled by people who could not handle other careers.
School reform is not something that should be ignored, feared nor met with apathy. Some amount of change should be an ongoing process but it must be based on firmly rooted educational research if the profession and the task are ever going to be taken seriously by the public. Vouchers have yet to show promise to a level which would justify their use. Clearly, there are other ways to address accountability, choice and cost control while maintaining a shared educational experience without smacking public education over the head. Yet if vouchers are to be widely distributed, let us demand that voucher recipients abide by the same regulations met by public schools. Only then will we be forced to realize how well public education works and put an end to education-bashing.
- Center for Educational Reform: The Truth About Education Vouchers: New Information on School Choice
- Washington Post: Scores Improve for D.C. Pupils With Vouchers
- AFT: Voucher Resources, Choice, Budget, Accountability
- NEA: Voucher Resources, Track Record
- The Cato Institute: Vouchers and Educational Freedom: A Debate
- Capitol Alert: Tim Draper: Destroy the School System to Save It
- The Atlantic Monthly: A Bold Experiment to Fix City Schools
- Washington Post: Vouchers Guilt Trip
- Education Week: Vouchers
- Exodus 2000 Project: An Overview
- The Irascible Professor: Voucher, Voucher, Who's Got the Voucher?
- Antithesis: A Case Against Education Vouchers
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