Culture & Society

Why School Vouchers Matter and How To Get Them Right

Vouchers should promote true competition and benefit poor as well as rich students

Image Credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

After a year of missed schooling and inadequate online learning, after months of teachers unions delaying the return to classrooms, it is time to reconsider school vouchers. Many “red” states are already doing so. Indiana is the most recent, and Florida, with one of the largest programs in the country, is about to undertake a major expansion. As these programs are implemented, we should learn which policies work best and build on those lessons.

The pro-voucher debate so far has focused on two features shared by all voucher programs. They offer more choices to parents and kids. And the schools supported by them appear to perform a bit better, on average, than existing public schools (after taking into account differences in student populations).

We need to refocus the debate on two other points that are crucial to designing effective programs. One is whether the payments are actually large enough to benefit poor families. Vouchers are useless to the poor unless they cover nearly all the costs of tuition, books and transportation. (The federal government already covers food costs.) The other issue is whether the programs foster genuine market competition, forcing schools to do their best for students or pay a high price for failure.

Well-designed voucher programs should accomplish the following:

  • Encourage new schools to enter the market,
  • Drive out schools that don’t meet students’ and parents’ needs, and
  • Shift public resources swiftly and decisively toward the best schools and away from the worst, as determined by the parents themselves.

These goals can be achieved only if resources follow the students, not the schools, teachers or administrators. They happen only if voucher programs are large enough and if bad public schools aren’t kept on life support. Right now, we don’t have that kind of vigorous competition, and it shows. Our children suffer for it.

Making Vouchers Large Enough To Benefit Poor Families

The size of each child’s voucher matters for two reasons. It matters ethically because our schools are meant to aid everyone, rich and poor alike, and contribute to our country as a whole. Vouchers should be no less inclusive. Participation by families at all income levels is important for a practical reason, too. Many families with school-age kids are poor or only marginally better off. Their participation is vital to creating a large, competitive market for K-12 schooling. Poor families can participate only if vouchers put private schools within their reach.

That’s not true for more prosperous families. They can use even small vouchers to supplement their existing payments to private schools, where many affluent families send their kids already. This “topping up” means small vouchers primarily benefit the rich while not helping the poor. (Economists call such policies “regressive.”) Such poorly designed programs subsidize well-off families with children, at the expense of all taxpayers.

But it is no simple feat to ensure voucher programs are adequately funded. It is tempting to pare them back, not only for the usual fiscal reasons but also because most pro-voucher politicians come from better-off districts. Nearly all are Republicans. They have no electoral incentive to funnel money to other politicians’ constituents.

Their colleagues from low-income districts, by contrast, stick with the Democratic Party line, siding with the teachers unions and opposing vouchers. (In recent years, they have gone even further, opposing public charter schools.) Their opposition to vouchers may not make sense educationally, but it does politically. The unions are well organized, and their members form a stable, middle-class, politically active core in each district. All other public-sector unions have stood solidly behind the teachers unions. Together, they’ve demonstrated more clout in low-income urban areas than amorphous groups of unhappy parents.

This analysis underscores three essential features of effective voucher programs. They should be:

  1. Large enough for each child to make private school an option, regardless of family income;
  2. Large enough, as a whole, to encourage new schools to crop up and compete; and
  3. Consequential enough that inferior schools—public, charter or private—cannot survive if they cannot attract enough students.

Fostering Genuine Competition Among Schools

For competition to work well, inferior schools, like inferior restaurants, must either change dramatically or go out of business. Unless principals and teachers face that fearful prospect, why should they strive to compete, improve and deliver the services parents want? Bad schools shouldn’t have a safe harbor, any more than bad restaurants do.

How can parents evaluate their children’s schools, aside from conversations with friends? Right now, they don’t have very many ways to measure quality, aside from some basic numbers such as class size and standardized test scores. Actually, the tests are less a tool for parents, who don’t have much choice anyway, than for education bureaucrats, who use them to identify and intervene in low-performing schools. In other words, these are top-down tools. They should be bottom-up, giving parents the information they need to make school choices.

In schools, as in most things, better information and more transparency help consumers make better choices. Standardized test scores can help, as can information from friends and neighbors. In a vigorous, competitive market, private services would add to the standardized data and neighborhood grapevines. They would provide more information about schools, just as they do for every other consumer product. Most people wouldn’t buy a car without consulting a rating system such as Kelley Blue Book. They wouldn’t go to a movie without checking a few reviews. The same would be true for selecting a K-12 school if vouchers were widely available. Information services would arise to meet parents’ needs once the education market became competitive.

These information services already exist for higher education, where students have wide choice. Universities advertise their rankings: “Best small college in the Midwest, according to . . . .” Similar ranking systems would crop up for K-12 schools, once choices became available. Schools with high rankings would eagerly promote them and highlight their special advantages: “Ninety percent of our graduates go on to college.” “Our Spanish teachers are native speakers.” Federal, state and local governments could help by requiring schools to provide a wide range of data so outside services could evaluate them and parents could make more-informed decisions.

What do parents really want from their kids’ schools? Only they can decide, and their choices will vary considerably. Parents with small children are likely to prefer neighborhood schools that they can walk to with their children. Other parents might be willing to travel a little farther for smaller class sizes. Working parents might want a school with longer hours or after-school programs.

The best choice for others might be one with advanced math classes, a good sports program, specialization in music and arts, remedial instruction or highly regarded reading programs. Some might want schools that emphasize student discipline and self-control. The tuition bill would also matter to parents who want to use some voucher money for online instruction, such as classes in two-variable calculus or African American literature. State laws ought to permit such flexibility and allow parents to roll over any unspent funds for use next year.

Those preferences cannot be determined or met from the top down by politicians and educational administrators, no matter how well informed or well intentioned. Only the families themselves know what they really want and what tradeoffs they are willing to make. Right now, they cannot exercise those preferences except by moving to another school district—a costly option for anyone and an unrealistic one for many.

Choice and Competition

The key issues here are both choice and competition. The two are inextricably linked since competition depends on consumer choice. What makes any school better is what makes any service better: the race for consumer dollars. That’s obvious when you consider the dreadful service you get in areas where this competition is missing. The Department of Motor Vehicles and the U.S. Post Office are textbook examples.

So are public schools, unfortunately. They are not a “natural monopoly,” except in rural areas that cannot support more than one school. They are an artificial monopoly, created by politicians and maintained by vested interests, led by teachers unions and the public officials in their pockets.

All of this would be hypothetical if our public schools were performing well. They aren’t. They have been showered with money for the past three decades but have produced only stagnant results. Those results are particularly troubling as our economy becomes more and more dependent on a good education. Denying that good education to poor children is the surest way to perpetuate income inequality. Yet the same politicians who complain about inequality simultaneously block the surest path to reducing it.

It’s time to end this monopoly stranglehold on our children’s futures. Vouchers, done the right way, can help by providing choice and competition. We need both. They work in every other aspect of American life. Why not in schools?

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