Six Questions That Counter the Fear of Vouchers
What is a voucher program?
[Voucher] programs allow parents to use public funding allocated for their child's education toward tuition at a private school of their choice, including religiously affiliated private schools (EdWeek).
Public educators and their union representatives speak out adamantly against vouchers. Vouchers are frequently described as a strategy to open school choice, and, therefore "better schools", to low income, low achieving students. But, vouchers can be used by anyone in most states and, interestingly, parents can use those tax supported vouchers to offset private school tuition. Many of the benefitting private schools are religiously affiliated. Hence, the argument is that a voucher plan is the remaking of public schools into a privatized system.
A secondary path toward privatization exists in the charter school movement. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools...
Charter schools choose their own management structure: 67 percent of all charter schools are independently run non-profit, single site schools; 20 percent are run by non-profit organizations that run more than one charter school; and just under 13 percent are run by for-profit companies.
The long held belief that public education is offered in this country to all children with public funds to create an educated population and support our democracy is eroding. Some would argue that this is occurring because the public system has failed children and serves only the adults within it. On the day before the DeVos confirmation the POTUS tweeted this perspective. Others see the vast amounts of money involved in education and want a share of it for personal or organizational gain. Then there are those of us, the public school educators who believe in the inextricable connection between democracy and education, who know a country's economic strength depends on its educational system, and who work daily to prepare students for college, career and life, no matter their race, ability, religion, or income. So the idea of vouchers, allowing parents to either move their child to a private school or a neighboring public school with a voucher, is an assault on long held beliefs. Perhaps that is why it is so offensive to us—not because we had a monopoly but because we saw ourselves as essential.
All Vouchers Are Not Equal
Voucher programs vary by state and locality. Some are limited to students with special needs. Others are limited to low income families. Some offer choices among public schools while others open doors to private schools. Perhaps the most unsettling of all is in Washington DC. Parents apply, meet income requirements, and the student is accepted. The voucher is good for only one year, requiring parents to re-apply each year. While an annual application processes may have logic in it, it places a burden on parents and does not provide consistency to a child. Yet, it incentivizes teachers and leaders to be sure the child and parents are happy and successful so the child wants to return the following year. Competition comes to K - 12 education this way.
In small and large cities, it is possible that there are places for charter schools and private schools to exist. Public transportation can support a child from their neighborhood school to another school across town. But what of the families that live in rural areas? The population is spread out over miles and density wouldn't make a charter or private school profitable or feasible. Think how many small cities have seen their Catholic schools close over the last twenty years.
Fundamentally, not all children will have choice. So, vouchers cannot replace the public schools as a system, only as a competing alternative for some. Of course, it will be those who can make a system work for themselves and their children who benefit most. Thus, it will be an inequitable system. The nation will strip away even an illusion of concern for the education of all. Some children have workable and plentiful options and others do not.
Why Do Parents and Student Leave?
Let's make a radical assumption—and an unfounded one. Let's say the charter or private school may be more successful in educating a child than the neighborhood school has been. Will we know why? Is it size? Is the school small enough to allow children to be seen and known in ways that don't happen in larger settings. Well, is this about size or culture? Do they offer longer school days or school years? Is it because their students are living in homes with supportive caretakers who are actively involved enough in their child's education? Is it about ELL programs or innovation? If these schools of choice have entered our playing field, we need to know more—really, with research.
- How does the size of our school affect student success? If so, in what ways? What can we do to counter that effect?
- How does our school schedule factor into limiting student success? If so, in what ways? What can we do to reduce that effect?
- In what ways are parents and guardians, all of them, engaged in the support of their child(ren)'s education? If they are not, how can we reach out and engage them to the best of their abilities, to feel part of their child(ren)'s education?
- In what ways are we engaged in varied and innovative teaching methods that engage all students? If we are not, how can we learn and develop those methods so that student learning is dynamic and successful?
- How effective are our special education programs and how can we make them more effective yielding more success for our special needs students?
- How effective is our ELL program and are their ways we can help those students become more successful?
It Is Not Too Late
We still have time and energy to serve the public and America's children well. Even if speaking up and fighting against vouchers is your calling (and we need voices doing that), it is still worth looking inward. If we find and eliminate the weak spots in our own schools, what parent will want their child to leave? Public education is filled with educators who care deeply about educating all students well. This is an opportunity to dig in and take a hard look at what each district and the schools within it can do better with no excuses, without blaming the homes and the parents, and without using all our constructive energy only shooting opposition at DC.