Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Do School Vouchers Work?

I've been thinking about the economics of school vouchers for the last few days. It seems to me that it essentially comes back to the same right vs. left debate of can the government provide something better than the open market. Now if you ask that question of any republican, they would tell you that the market will provide the better (insert service here) than a government can, except for defense, and infrastructure, and things that companies can't really make a lot of money off of (which these days are becoming quite scarce). The same argument applies to a lot of what's talked about in the political world right now (for example health care), but when you boil down the argument the question is simply, can the private sector provide the essential needs to a society in a way that is beneficial to both the society, and the private sector's bottom line?

So the argument on vouchers from the right is, "Individual choice and competition will improve our education system." To which the left responds "Vouchers only create choice and competition to those who already have access to alternate education options."

To better state my horribly simplified arguments, the Deseret News wrote a story about who vouchers will help.

Outside of tuition for private schools there are other costs, said Sarah Meier, member of UTPS. Families have to provide transportation to school, if it's not in their neighborhood, and purchase uniforms.
Plus, if a child qualifies for free or reduced lunch in a public school, there is no comparable program in a private school. And many private schools require parents to volunteer a set amount of hours each year — something low-income parents could have a hard time doing.

So basically if you can't afford a private school already, and extra $500 to $3,000 isn't going to push you over the top. If you already have the means to put your children in private school, here's a check. The right disagrees.
But voucher supporters say vouchers will help low-income families the most.
Leah Barker, spokeswoman for Parents for Choice in Education and Children First Utah, an organization that gives private school scholarships to low-income families, said $3,000 will go a long way since the average cost for a K-8 school in Utah is around $4,000.
She said at Children First Utah the average family of four that qualifies for the scholarships makes less than $25,000 a year. And half of last year's 2,000 applicants at Children First Utah were from minority families.
"The (voucher program) is clearly favoring low-income families — those are the people who are really going to want to access vouchers," Barker said.

So they say $3,000 is enough for a low income family to have the opportunity to remove their child from public schooling and place them in the private school of their choice. Notice the chart at the bottom of the article though, tuition amounts, per year per student, based on those numbers the average seems quite a bit higher than $4,000. Even if the average is $4,000 though, where is a low income family supposed to come up with the extra $1,000 when they are trying to provide shelter for and feed their families?

Logistical problems aside, do voucher programs provide what they are claiming they will, or, in other words, does the private sector step up and provide the service better than the government? The National Education Association doesn't think so, but they go farther than just not thinking so, they've studied existing voucher programs and monitored the results. Their findings aren't what voucher advocates will want to hear.
Proponents of private school tuition vouchers make a wide array of claims about their benefits. They claim that competition will spur public school improvement, vouchers will reduce the cost of education, students who get vouchers will show dramatic achievement gains, and vouchers are a success in most industrialized nations. None of this has happened.

To summarize the findings, the majority of voucher users were all ready in private school, or had their family had the means to do so (and we aren't talking a 53% majority, rather in the 80 and 90% range); no statistically significant improvements have been shown by voucher students, meaning a students education is more contingent upon the commitment to education by themselves and their family, not whether they are in a private or public school; vouchers cost a lot of money, often times more than is projected; and public opinion is against vouchers, and for improving public education.

Overall the school voucher idea seems to be full of idealistic economic thinking that doesn't come to fruition when actually set in motion. Personally, I would make the same argument to the majority of the right's economic ideas. The argument for open market economics providing the best service on goods and services necessary to a society neglects the fact that the private companies will expose the necessity of their goods to enlarge their profits (I don't know if any one's noticed this or not, but gas prices have gotten ginormous lately). Now I'm not saying that private schools are in it for the bottom line, but I don't think they are the magic cure all that voucher advocates proclaim them to be. Which would make school vouchers amount to little more than an socially expensive tax cut for the rich.


  1. Well stated position. Simple and to the point. Good job.

  2. There is no "best" way to educate children. Different children have different learning styles, and different needs. So the conservative dream of "market forces" improving education is wrong. But so is the liberal tradition of standardized, centralized education.

    The best approach I have seen is a mixture of public schools with open enrollment, and charter schools that are integrated into public school funding. Small, nimble charter schools can conduct alternative pedagogies or narrowly focused goals (such as special ed or bilingual ed), with students attending by their parents' choice. This diversity should lead to academic improvements overall for states that use it.

    Moreover, it disproves the ideology of vouchers, by providing for highly independent, specialized schools through existing public school funding. No vouchers needed. That unmasks the voucher approach for what it truly is... a backdoor plan to funnel public money to subsidized private schools that the poor cannot afford, and to religious schools.

    We can do better. And states like Minnesota ARE doing better.

  3. Love the NEA parts:
    1. Most of them were already at the same school => no real change. What do you expect? If that is true, their grades wouldn't change. (I thought that minorities and such were given preferential treatment?)
    2. Gas prices! Evil corporations! (class warfare)
    3. tax cut for the rich (class warfare).
    4. Expensive? Most voucher plans I see are less than half the cost. Here in NH, it's $14k per kid in public school. And they are crying for more. Really???

    There is a reason the parents took to the streets after the DC vouchers were dropped.

  4. Raymond,

    1. I believe the idea is that you would be taking tax payer dollars to pay tuition that would have been paid by the private citizen. Sounds like the "S" word to me! Surprised a free-marketer like you didn't see that.
    2. Gas prices have no bearing on this issue, none at all, since we all know buses run from magic dust.
    3. Call it what you want to call it, the fact is the voucher is free money best utilized by the rich. Facts are hard to swallow sometimes, I see you found it easier to drink a glass of Kool Aid with them.
    4. No need to lie, the state of NH has an average around $10k.

    What's ACTUALLY at work with vouchers is the right's desire to break the teacher unions/PTAs/liberal educational elite by taking funds from them and giving them to parochial and conservative owned private charters. THAT'S the fact that conservatives are too cowardly to state. Thou shalt not lie apparently does not extent to intellectual dishonesty. Good luck with that, because unlike antiquated ideals, progress cannot be stopped, and you WILL lose.

  5. i haven't seen the argument yet that the money is actually being used to educate a child. that's where the debate should focus. I noticed in the last post that Anonymous believes that the right has the desire to take funds from 'teachers unions/PTAs/liberal educational elite'. That's what they would like you to believe as 'they' don't want the money taken away from them. However,it's not ultimately about the money. It's about the child. It's the answer to the question, "how will child X get the very best education possible with the tax dollars that have already been set aside for them?". As altruistic as the Board of Education, the school district, and the teachers may be, altruism has never won the award for producing the best product (a well-educated, able to globally compete, child). As a society we have decided that it is in our best interest to have an educated population. Never was it said, or proven that the best way to do that is to have the government be in charge of that task.