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What is a Voucher System?

Jordan Catapano

As our political season is in full swing, you may have heard from time to time certain candidates bring up the possibility of implementing a “Voucher system” for schools in your state. What do they mean when they bring up this term? As you might expect with any political issue, the possibility of a voucher system can often prove contentious, so here are the basics of what you need to know to ensure that you can follow along with the conversation about such a system.

A School Voucher Defined

A voucher system involves what’s called “School vouchers” or “Education vouchers.” These vouchers represent a portion of government funding towards a school that a student or that student’s family chooses.

In certain circumstances, families end up paying for two types of schooling simultaneously: The Public school in their community paid for through taxes, and a private school or home school experience the student actually attends paid for through tuition, fees, and cost of materials. A school voucher can work in different ways, but it essentially results in students receiving money from the government – a portion of what they’ve paid in taxes to fund the local public school – and then using that money to fund their own education selection.

The question surrounding vouchers is this: “Is it fair to have families pay taxes to fund a school their child does not attend, and to pay again for the school their child does attend?” As you might expect, there are pros and cons to both sides.

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Vouchers Encourage Competition

Vouchers are largely an economic issue; families who want to send their students to a private school often cannot afford it without the assistance of a voucher. The subsidy provided by the voucher helps parents afford the typically high tuition costs of private schools. This means that in areas where public and private schools are near one another, the private school becomes more of an economic feasibility if school vouchers are provided for families.

Families hoping to send their children to private schools with the help of vouchers means that they now have a choice: They can send their children to the public school or the private school, whereas the private school may have previously been economically out of reach. This could make a big difference especially for students in low-income and low-achieving public schools. Students don’t have to attend their local public school, but instead could have an increased opportunity to attend a higher-performing private school with the help of school vouchers. And the result of this choice is improved competition, as both public and private schools must work better to attract the most and the best students.

Proponents also point out how increased competition and increased privatizing of education could lead to lower cost-per-pupil expenses. A 2010 study from the CATO Institute concluded that, “Public schools are spending 93 percent more than the estimated median private school.” In theory then, with the help of vouchers, more students can attend private schools, and more overall dollars can be saved through these more cost-effective institutions.

From this vantage point, vouchers provide choice, increase competition and improvement, and lead to more cost-effective education. What’s not to like?

The Case Against Vouchers

If you’re an opponent of education vouchers, there’s a lot not to like about implementing such a system. While on the surface vouchers appear to be the perfect solution to open up schooling opportunities and innovations, there really never is a “Perfect solution” in something as complex as the funding and implementation of the education system.

First, providing vouchers usually means taking money away from public schools. If public schools are funded with tax dollars, and a portion of those dollars are reallocated to a private school via a voucher program, then the public school receives less funding. In addition to reduced funding for public schools, there is no guarantee that children attending private schools would fare any better. So redirecting funding to private schools via a voucher program means that public schools are worse off, without any substantive guarantee that private schools would be better off.

Also, the public has a high degree of involvement in public schools as they can elect board members, approve budgets, and participate in meetings. None of this is true for private schools; so an increase in private school attendance would lead to a decrease in participation and control by the public. Plus, private schools run their own agenda when it comes to standards, assessments, evaluations, and so on, meaning that there is less accountability and oversight of these institutions. As the National Education Association points out, “Where vouchers are in place -- Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida -- a two-tiered system has been set up that holds students in public and private schools to different standards.”

Besides, as Greg Palast asserts in his scathing “No Child’s Behind Left” indictment of the new era of testing and broken promises, “76 percent of the money handed out for Arizona's voucher program has gone to children already in private schools.” Which essentially means that students who can already afford private schools are receiving a hefty bonus to their pocket books, without the doors to private schools necessarily opening up for a substantial number of new attendees.

Proponents of the voucher system promise increased competition between schools that lead to improvements, but what others point out is that this creates increased competition between students. All students will, naturally, want to attend the highest performing schools. Once those schools are filled with the “Preferred students,” everyone else must resign to attend a less preferred school … and that is likely their local public school that now has even less funding. In its most diabolical form, a voucher program could lead to even further segregation of students along lines of class, racial, or educational ability.

Thinking About Vouchers

At its best form, a voucher system promises improvements for students and for schools; at its worst, it divides students against one another and actually makes education worse. So which is it?

There are no definitive answers, but we can look to states and communities that have implemented voucher systems as guidance for what provisions, in reality, may work best. There is a wide variety of ways for vouchers to be funded by states and for students to be selected in a manner that approximates fairness and equality, and currently 13 states have experimented with options.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) provides a useful breakdown of state voucher programs, including the types of variables states must consider. They note that states must address where the program will have effect, which students are allowed to participate, what is expected of private schools, and how many vouchers for how much money will be awarded each year.

These are challenging questions to address, as every response is likely to simultaneously create a solution and a new problem. Consider for yourself what opportunities vouchers in your community might open or close, and listen carefully to your candidates as they discuss vouchers and education. Hopefully you understand the implications on either side of this debate a little more!

What do you think about vouchers? Do you live in a community that has had vouchers as an option? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.