I was recently having a discussion with a cousin about school vouchers which forced me to articulate my opposition to school vouchers. Many people are surprised that I’m opposed to vouchers, since I have libertarian inclinations and generally favor individual choice over government mandate. And indeed, my concerns with voucher programs are not the typical liberal concern that it undermines public education (for an example of such an argument, see Mike’s comments on charter schools . My concern is that vouchers wouldn’t actually solve the problem. For vouchers to work, there are a number of assumptions that have to be made:
1) There exist enough good private schools with open slots in their classrooms that kids could actually have a choice to move to better schools.
2) The parents know enough, and care enough about which schools to send their kids to that they can effectively make the choice on behalf of their kids
3) The voucher would allow the parent to cover the cost of private education
4) The issues are primarily institutional (school based) rather than individual (student or family based).
I am not clear that any of these assumptions are met. Right now, I do not know of any top private schools in my area that have open seats. Top schools have an applicant pools that greatly exceed capacity. In fact, it’s so competitive to get into top schools in some cities that parents hire consultants to try to get their elementary age kids into good high schools. And of course, the problem is also going to exist in rural areas where there isn’t a population large enough to support multiple schools for choice. Giving vouchers to poor kids won’t do anything if there are no private schools (or seats in private schools).
Second, private schools are clustered in areas with wealthy parents. You don’t see many good private schools in South Central Los Angeles or East St. Louis. And most parents who live in such neighborhoods don’t have cars to drive kids across the city, nor is there easily available public transit. Moreover, parents don’t know how bad the schools are, and don’t know which schools are better. Vouchers would potentially encourage good schools to open in bad neighborhoods but it would also encourage frauds to open schools to get government money without delivering services. How do parents who don’t speak English and themselves didn’t graduate from middle school determine what’s the best school for their kid?
Third, private high schools costs over $30,000 in the Los Angeles area. The reimbursement per kid for public schools was less than $10,000 last I checked. So, how is a poor parent supposed to make up the difference? Admittedly, there exists a population for whom that $10,000 will allow a family to send their kids to private school. However, those families typically aren’t living in districts with the really terrible public schools anyway. When we talk about “crumbling schools” and “failing infrastructure”, that often refers to the schools in the most impoverished areas. The vouchers won’t be able to make a difference for the students who most need it.
Finally, I have friends who teach in public schools, and the stories they tell about the home lives of some of the kids in their classes are dismal – no child could thrive in that environment. Often when schools are failing there are issues in the community that go well beyond the schools. If kids are victims of abuse, or hungry, or come from families that don’t care about education, etc. then they will struggle to succeed in any school. Private schools may be able to get around this by being selective (and not taking kids from really bad backgrounds) but then the voucher policy is still failing a large number of low income children.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not ideologically opposed to vouchers. I just don’t think that the infrastructure exists to allow vouchers to solve the education problem. None of the assumptions that I laid out above are accurate, which means vouchers will not solve the problem with education.
A proponent of vouchers might argue that vouchers don’t need to completely solve the problem, they just need to improve things somewhat. I agree that marginal improvement is good – we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But we have to consider the costs/benefit. Vouchers aren’t free. Not bureaucratically speaking. There has to be an organization for delivering vouchers, ensuring that there’s no fraud (how do we know that I’m not requesting vouchers for my dog? How do we know all the schools that are taking vouchers are legitimate schools with curricula that we’re ok with, etc.). That bureaucracy isn’t free. So, we have to measure the costs of implementing the program against the improvements that will likely result.
It strikes me that what vouchers will do is give money to wealthy parents who already are sending their kids to private schools, and will do little or nothing to improve the lives of everybody else. Analysis of the assumptions underlying a potential policy solution can often reveal serious flaws with the possible effectiveness of that solution.