The Center for Public School Renewal
NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Vouchers are One Form of Choice" by The Detroit News, 10/9/97.
With the new school year comes a new round of editorials on vouchers. AFT President Feldman recently denounced vouchers as stealing money from public schools (The Detroit News, 9/23/97). A subsequent News editorial (9/24/97) countered with the politically correct argument that--since education policy makers can afford to send their children to private schools--so too should the poor (but at state expense).
Somehow, we need to get beyond the debate over the basic pros and cons of vouchers to a point of common understanding. Then we can move forward.
Vouchers are one form of school choice, and "choice," in general, is a good idea. I benefitted from available magnet school choices, as both a parent and a teacher. However, it is not clear that all forms of choice are good.
Choice within the public school arena--magnet schools and cross-district enrollment allowances--are basically good ideas. Districts should look for ways to make more of these choices available. True public charter schools--schools that were not formerly private schools--should also be encouraged. Districts, for example, could fairly easily convert their schools to charters.
Choice outside of the public school arena, however, is more problematic. Faux charter schools are a case in point.
These schools--formerly private--secure the support of some chartering institution. Each student then brings in almost $6000 in public funds, where before, they brought in only the tuition their parents paid. I know of two such schools, and more are probably scattered around the state.
Faux charters can drain the public coffers in two ways. They might require an increase in total education funding to cover the new (formerly private) students. Or, they may decrease the amount that goes to established public schools. Why legislators didn't plug this loophole by prohibiting pre-existing private schools from becoming charters is a puzzle.
Voucher proposals that fund students' attendance at private schools present a similar problem. If vouchers aren't restricted to kids who are public school students, then we have the same problem--increased costs to taxpayers, or decreased funding to existing public schools.
These costs are over and above the losses public schools would incur if their students used vouchers to switch to private schools. At least a loss caused by switching--though disruptive to staffing--would be partially balanced by the savings from not needing to educate those who left.
Voucher proposals have other problems as well. For one thing, most private schools are church-related schools. So, taxpayers would have to accept possibly unsuitable religious indoctrination as the price of a better education for someone else's children. Do you want tax dollars going to support a religion you don't believe in?
Even if your answer is "Yes", there simply isn't enough classroom space in current private schools to take in many public school students. Private schools educate about 12% of all kids, and they are already mostly full. So, vouchers would have to be rationed out to only a few public school students. Can this be done fairly, or will favoritism creep in? And what help do we offer to the unlucky majority who lose out on vouchers?
Voucher supporters often claim that private school competition will push public schools to improve. This is rubbish.
Public schools have little chance to compete fairly with private schools. The reason has nothing to do with employee competence or program quality. It has to do with the fact that private schools are optional, and public schools are not.
Optional schools survive only if people choose them. But, being optional frees them from the regulatory burden that weighs down public education. In fact, this freedom is their main attraction. If they didn't have it, few parents would choose them.
Private schools can (and do) get rid of kids who are disruptive, or whose parents don't participate in required activities. They don't have to battle the tenure system to fire incompetent teachers. Since these two supervisory burdens are smaller, they need fewer administrators. They are free from other regulations--and the related staffing--too.
Voucher proponents who are sincere about improving education through competition should be clamoring as loudly for de-regulation of public education as for vouchers. It's the only way to make public/private school competition fair.
Until public schools are free from their regulatory burden, calls for vouchers are nothing more than calls to create one more group with favored access to education. Vouchers may someday become a reality, but without public school deregulation, they will never be the solution to education's problems that their proponents' claim.