School Vouchers Not Practical For Everyone

28 April 2000

By Stentor Danielson

According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, education is the top issue for voters in this year’s Presidential campaign. Conveniently, the two major candidates show a clear break over the most contentious education issue: vouchers.

Democratic nominee Al Gore is opposed to any voucher scheme, though his running mate Senator Joseph I. Lieberman has in the past endorsed the idea. Republican nominee George W. Bush, on the other hand, favors vouchers as part of a program to increase school accountability. While it is encouraging that Americans are looking at new solutions to education problems, vouchers will ultimately prove to be a dead end.

The basic idea of vouchers is that parents of children in failing schools would be able to take their child’s share of the money the school receives and put it toward tuition at a private school. The hope is that these children will benefit from the higher quality private education, while public schools would be forced to shape up in order to compete for government money.

Voucher supporters were heartened by a study released late last month revealing that students who had taken advantage of an experimental voucher program (particularly African American students) did better in school than their peers who, by the luck of the draw, were denied vouchers. But these numbers do not indicate that vouchers will improve the overall educational situation in America.

The problem with vouchers is that not everyone can take advantage of them. The interesting thing to note in this study is that, while students moving to private schools did better, there was no evidence that education for the students left behind improved as a result of the vouchers. This would seem to buttress claims that voucher programs drain money from public schools, making it harder for them to compete, thereby nullifying any added motivation they may give educators.

In some cases, voucher plans have moved to counter that most popular of objections. They do this by giving parents only some of the tax dollars that the public school has been receiving for their child. That way, every child that departs leaves behind a bit of cash that can be spread out among the remaining children, increasing their per capita funding. But this points out the second, potentially more harmful flaw in vouchers -- the inadequacy of the funds given to parents.

The study claimed accuracy because voucher students were compared with students who wanted vouchers but didn’t get them because of chance, and were therefore similarly motivated. But what of students who did not apply for vouchers because they knew that a voucher alone would not be enough?

Consider, for example, Bush’s voucher plan. If a school failed his test for three straight years, parents would be able to spend $1,500 each at a school of their choice. Good luck to parents trying to find private schools charging $1,500 a year.

Parents are simply not empowered to choose a school unless they are given the full price of tuition. The students who need programs to improve their schooling most are those whose parents are least able to make up the difference between the voucher price and school tuition.

But even if the bill from the private school is paid in full, there are additional costs. For example, many private schools have a dress code ever so slightly stricter than the typical public school policy of "wear whatever you want as long as it doesn’t have drugs or a gun in the pocket." And though we may not like to admit it, there are many families in America who would have trouble affording a week’s worth of shirts and ties on top of a casual after-school and weekend wardrobe.

Accessibility is another issue. Private schools are not nearly as common as public schools. Private transportation costs money, as does the public transportation available in cities.

Even if a student manages to get to a private school, he or she is by no means guaranteed a place in a classroom. Of the 70,000 public school students in Washington, D.C., for example, 50 could be placed in the District’s parochial schools.

To gain any benefit from competition between schools, the public school system needs to see a real threat to its funding from voucher-based moves to private education. I imagine most Washington administrators would love to see 50 or so students skimmed off their rolls.

Furthermore, vouchers assume that the flaw in our public school system is a lack of motivation on the part of administrators. But the strong correlation between low-income regions and poor schools suggests that a big part of the problem is a lack of resources. Resources that could buy the new technology that we need to prepare children for a changing world and attract the quality teachers that are reluctant, in this time of teacher shortage, to come to a struggling district.

Perhaps the infamous lack of motivation is less apathy and more a realistic assessment of what the school can do with the few dollars it has. The solution then would be to give these schools more to work with, rather than threatening to take away what little they have. Gore, in classic Democratic form, has proposed big education spending. Bush, however, has too little money left over after his huge tax cut to give schools the help they need.

Education is one arena where it is vital for the government to intervene. A leveled playing field, necessary for true democracy to flourish, is best achieved through quality education. So we should think twice before throwing education to the unpredictable winds of a market not ready or able to handle it in an equitable manner.

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