The Center for Public School Renewal
NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Vouchers and Credits: Dumb and Dumber" by The Detroit News, 12/17/98.
The recent pro-voucher Supreme Court ruling in Milwaukee may signal the beginning of the end for court challenges to vouchers. But, did Roe v. Wade settle the abortion issue? Hardly.
No matter what happens in court, we are a long way from having the voucher question decided. Sooner or later--probably sooner here in Michigan--the fight scene will shift from the legal to the political arena. The theory is, if you can't win your case the easy way, in court, take it to the people for another "hearing."
Vouchers and their ugly cousins--tuition tax credits--are Dumb and Dumber. However, this may be unclear for two reasons. First, vouchers' primary opponents--public educators--have a vested interest in protecting the status quo. This makes their arguments seem suspect, even when they are sound. Second, the anti-voucher side is further weakened by the presence of failing schools. To those families most at risk, vouchers look like a quick fix, even a cure.
Still, vouchers and tax credits are badly flawed ideas. One major flaw is that they will make public education even more unequal than it now is. Middle class families will benefit from this kind of educational subsidy more than the poor. Tax credits, for example, work only for those who earn enough money to pay taxes and have the up-front money needed for tuition and other expenses that are reimbursed later.
One way to avoid providing education subsidies for the well-to-do could be to limit vouchers to poor families through means-testing. This is likely to be both impractical--a bureaucratic nightmare to administer--and politically divisive. Many will think, "If vouchers are good for some, they should be good for all."
Another possibility would be to restrict vouchers to students in schools that are currently failing. While this strategy has a certain appeal, it too is flawed. There are far too few openings in private schools to make this a general solution for all. Vouchers would create one more favored group, leaving most educationally needy children out--a weak reform at best.
The second major flaw of vouchers is that they are also weak on public accountability. Should parents be the sole judges of where they spend our taxes to educate their children? Conversely, if a community funds education, shouldn't a community have some say about how those funds are spent?
In the past, public funding for education has come along with public oversight over how those funds are spent. Of course, we haven't always been happy about that regulatory oversight. Few people would look at most urban schools and conclude they are well-run. But, to go from ineffective regulation to no-regulation-at-all is foolish.
Paradoxically, vouchers promise both too little regulation and too much regulation simultaneously! They promise too little in comparison to current public school funding, as mentioned above, and too much in comparison to what private schools now have.
Private school operators are kidding themselves if they think voucher money will come without hard-to-swallow regulations. Michigan's Hillsdale College may become a model for private schools in Voucher World. Hillsdale is famous for rejecting federally funded programs so as to be free from the accompanying regulations.
Vouchers and tax credits have other flaws beyond increasing inequity and fostering unsuitable regulation.
They will either increase the total cost of education, or decrease the public school share. The reason? Children now in private schools would become eligible for vouchers. Don't forget those Michigan charter schools that were formerly private schools. Vouchers and tax credits--even harder to oversee than charters--will increase the number of children eligible for public funding, and increase the tax bill to pay for them as well.
Vouchers and tax credits pose a threat, not just to regular public schools, but also to another form of school choice--the charter school. By giving some access to private schools, vouchers would reduce incentives to continue to develop charters. Let's stick to one major school reform at a time.
I'd like to see all public schools become like charter schools. They would then be relieved of the burden of too many regulations and too much top-down control. They could compete with private schools on an equal footing. This is not so far-fetched as it may sound, since the law allows public school districts to create as many charters as they like.
What is most important, more people at the school level would then have the power to make the important decisions about the education they offer. This will improve kids' lives.
Parents need more freedom to choose schooling for their children. But, not all forms of choice are good. Vouchers and tax credits are dumb, charter schools aren't.