Commentary

Private school vouchers provide students a better chance to excel? Prove it

April 3, 2022 3:00 pm
School children running and jumping off staircase from school building

Lawmakers are pitching expansions of school voucher programs to use taxpayer money to pay private school tuition with unproven claims that learning opportunities are better. (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

Bit by bit, inch by inch, year by year, Republicans in the Georgia General Assembly and in legislatures across the country have been moving toward passage of full-fledged school-voucher systems that would inevitably undermine public education.

This year, at least for the moment, and at least in Georgia, that incremental advance has been stalled. Perhaps wary of angering teachers on the eve of the 2022 election, the Georgia Senate rejected a bill this week that would have provided $6,000 vouchers to encourage public-school students to switch to private schools. As pointed out by Stephen Owens of the Georgia Public Policy Institute, that would have been in addition to two existing voucher programs in Georgia that last year funneled more than $130 million to private schools.

However, voucher advocates are a stubborn bunch, and they will be back. Some of their passion is driven by ideology, by a blind faith that the free-enterprise system can do everything better. Others are driven by the desire to leave the perceived problems of the public-school system behind, seeking shelter in private schools with a carefully curated student body. And investors and private companies eager to tap into what they envision as a highly profitable new industry play an increasingly important role in pushing the idea.

But let’s talk a little bit about the reason that public education exists in the first place. Why did we decide two centuries ago that it was necessary to tax people, business and property for public schools?  Why did we pass laws making education mandatory, forcing children to attend school rather than work on their parents’ farm or shop or in factories?

We did so because we recognize that to a substantial degree, children are a communal resource and a communal obligation. Like every human society since the dawn of the species, we do so because children are emphatically not just the responsibility of their parents. We all have an interest in them, and that’s why, through government, we require each other to contribute financially to the cause of educating them.

Now, having accepted the need to use the power of the state to collect money to educate children, what should we do with those resources? Voucher advocates tell us that government’s role should end with collecting and dispersing the money to parents, that the parents should decide where to send their children and that “the money should follow the child.” Furthermore, because this is a fad driven by free-market ideology, not practicality, the ideology insists that government can’t interfere in how those private schools use government-provided money. It can’t influence curriculum, admission standards, performance standards, etc., even when government is paying all or much of the bill.

About this point, the hypocrisies are multiplying like rabbits. Many of those who are most insistent that government has no right to regulate private schools funded by government money would, in any other context, be apoplectic at the idea of just giving people government money, no strings attached, on the assumption that they would know best how to spend it. Yet that’s essentially what they propose with vouchers.

And today, many of those insisting that voucher money go to private schools with no strings attached, with no government control over curriculum, staff, admissions, etc., are simultaneously insisting on micro-managing what goes on in public schools, from the books allowed in the school library to the content of history classes to sports programs to mandating the pledge of allegiance or even school prayers.

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In one arena, government money requires strict government oversight, with ridiculous “don’t say gay” laws and restrictions against non-existent “critical race theory;” in the other arena, government oversight is forbidden.

Now, if we have a mutual obligation to ensure that children are educated, if that’s the justification for school taxes, how can we say that our obligation ends with providing tuition money, and that we don’t have to care or worry about how that money is spent? To voucher advocates, the answer to that is the free-enterprise system. They argue that we don’t have to worry about the quality of voucher-funded schools because parents will want to put their children in the best quality schools possible, forcing schools to compete on the basis of academic quality.

In the words of Woodstock state Republican Rep. Wes Cantrell, author of a Georgia vouchers bill:

“I submit to you today that if parents had a choice, that all of these issues would take care of themselves because schools would have to be more responsive to parents if they knew the parents could go to something else.”

“All these issues would take care of themselves.” How nice to be able to believe that.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, we have a close analogy from which to gauge the merits of Cantrell’s claim. For-profit colleges may not be financed through vouchers, but they rely very heavily on government-backed college loans, which in form and function are pretty similar to vouchers. If competition and the free-enterprise system force schools to excel academically to attract students, as the theory insists, then for-profit colleges ought to be bastions of academic performance, producing graduates that dominate their fields of expertise.

Except, of course, they don’t. Not even close. Even the best for-profit schools struggle to provide the level of education provided by mediocre community colleges for a lot less money, and many younger Americans who have taken out loans to pay tuition at for-profit schools have found themselves saddled with debt that they may never have the earning power to pay back. Frankly, a lot of the for-profit schools have been little more than scams.

So why hasn’t the theory worked out in reality? Well, it turns out academic excellence is expensive to create and hard to measure and market, and there are much easier, cheaper more profitable ways to compete for students. Sure, you can spend $100,000 to hire a new math professor for your school. But if you take that same $100,000 and spend it on marketing, TV ads and student recruitment, the impact on your student enrollment and profit margin will be much more dramatic. There’s just very little evidence of schools even attempting to compete on academics.

No advocate of vouchers has ever been able to explain how K-12 for-profit schools would operate differently than for-profit colleges. The incentives would be the same, the dynamics would be the same. There’s every reason to believe that the outcome would be the same as well.

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This commentary was first published by Georgia Recorder, part of the States Newsroom network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: [email protected] Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

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Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.

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