Just before the July 4th holiday, the state of Arizona passed the country’s largest school voucher program, in what will become the most far-reaching education privatization plan the country has ever seen. Essentially, the law will give parents the option to “opt-out” of public schools and in return, receive roughly $7,000 per child that the family can then use to pay tuition at a private school. In practice, these “private” schools can include religious schools, expenses for homeschool education, virtual schools, as well as fees associated with so-called “microschools,” a system made popular during the pandemic in which small groups of parents hire their own teachers to educate their children. Governor Greg Abbott and others in the state legislature have floated the idea of a school voucher program for the students of Texas. This is a misguided idea for a number of reasons.
“Vouchers do not constitute school choice – plain and simple.”
First off, it is important to distinguish between voucher programs and the widely popular and successful school choice movement that has brought competition into public education, resulting in improved public school options for students. Schools of choice – whether they be alternate campuses that operate within an existing public school district or public charter schools that are run by a separate management organization – provide families with something that has not historically existed: options. Now, those who advocate for voucher programs are trying to ride on the coattails of the school choice movement, but vouchers do not constitute school choice – plain and simple.
If a wealthy family uses a voucher to help pay for a private school their child already attends, it takes away money from public schools. But if a child with a lower socioeconomic status wanted to attend a private school, vouchers typically would not cover the entire cost of that private school, meaning families will still be left without choice. In areas where voucher programs have been rolled out, they have been disappointing. According to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education on the voucher program implemented in Washington, D.C., students using vouchers to attend a private school did worse on math and reading than similar students in public school. This came after another recent study conducted by Northwestern University that found similar weak results for Ohio’s voucher program.
“Surely this isn’t the free market competition result that voucher advocates support.”
Those who advocate for vouchers like to cite “accountability” as their main justification for pushing for the option to leave the public school system. In Florida, after the passing of a wide-reaching voucher program, a disturbing trend began of for-profit entities forming so-called “voucher-schools:” cheap private schools that could take the voucher money from families for tuition. These were so poorly regulated that problems inherently arose – schools hiring teachers without any credentials, schools holding classes in decaying strip malls, and schools that violated health and safety requirements. The same problem could predictably happen in Arizona: a recent report by the Goldwater Institute found that vouchers would only cover about two-thirds of the median tuition for the state’s private schools. Surely this isn’t the free market competition result that voucher advocates support.
Unlike most voucher programs, most public school choice systems are subject to careful and rigid oversight, as well as evaluation. Local and state officials are able to evaluate schools based on student progress and surveys of teachers and families – a process that does not happen in the private school world. Because of this actual accountability, many charter schools and networks have shown the ability to close academic gaps, especially in communities where the traditional public schools have struggled.
“Voucher laws will speed up the attacks that have been negatively impacting public schools across the country over the past several election cycles.”
Public education isn’t just another policy issue. It is the most proven force for reducing poverty, building a strong workforce and driving economic growth. School vouchers are just one smaller issue within education reform, but it will be a critical one for our state moving forward. On an immediate level, voucher laws will speed up the attacks that have been negatively impacting public schools across the country over the past several election cycles. Vital funds will continue to be steadily drained away from public education. While the immediate cost of voucher expansion will draw on general government funds, the money to cover the loss of money from children leaving public schools in the coming years will undoubtedly be deducted from the budgets of public schools themselves.
“School choice provides options for families and allows for new doors to open for students.”
School choice provides options for families and allows for new doors to open for students. Voucher programs are a Trojan horse for the dismantling of our public school system as we know it – a system that needs reform, but not outright rejection in exchange for unregulated, unproven private schools.