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Vouchers and Equity

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In this post, Jack and Julian kick off the week's conversation about school choice by discussing the resurgence of voucher plans.

Schneider: Let's talk about vouchers. It's an old school topic, first proposed by the free market economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s. And it faded off the map in the late twentieth century because of the financial implications for public schools. In a nutshell, the several million families who already have kids in private schools would be able to withdraw their tax dollars from the public purse.

But now vouchers are back as a topic, and this time they've been given an equity gloss. What's your take?

Heilig: In past discussions in this column, I've talked about how testing and underqualified teachers were examples of what we used to call discrimination, but now have been spun in the public discourse as civil rights efforts.

Vouchers are no different. After Brown v. Board, whites in the South began to claim that "quality" issues in the public schools necessitated vouchers from the state to send their students to private schools. In reality, the "segregation academies" that received white students were focused on empowering white parents to choose to avoid integration. Since the segregation academies were private schools, they were outside of the reach of the Brown ruling.

While vouchers are not explicitly a discriminatory vehicle, current case law suggests that private schools are able to discriminate however they desire based on race, ethnicity, religion, etc. Also, private schools are not accountable to the state for the public monies they receive—a particularly troubling fact when coupled with research demonstrating uneven provision of quality education among private schools. Finally, for parochial-based private schools, the traditional separation of church and state comes into play, even if public money has been laundered through a foundation or some other state-determined neo-voucher mechanism.

Schneider: I'm a critic of vouchers, but I'm going to do my best to play devil's advocate. Let's set the sordid history of vouchers aside. And let's imagine a voucher system in which only low-income students would be eligible—a system like they have in Milwaukee, for instance. That way we don't need to worry about high-income private school parents from pulling their tax dollars from the public system.

What about the notion that vouchers empower low-income families to make choices in the same manner that high-income families can?

And let me go a step further here, as long as we're imagining that vouchers aren't a truly horrible idea. Let's imagine that all private schools have to accept the voucher as full tuition (since Milwaukee's vouchers are worth less than $7,000, which covers only a fraction of tuition at a non-parochial independent school). And let's imagine that private schools need to reserve 15% of their seats for voucher students.

What then? Have we empowered low-income families at all?

Heilig: I have never been convinced by the tug-at-the-heart-strings argument about poor kids and vouchers.

First we have to remember that the "only for the poor" angle is just a short term ruse. As we saw in Florida this year, vouchers were expanded from "only for the poor" to families of higher income levels. 

So if vouchers won't be limited to the poor, what should we expect from expanding vouchers? A number of studies have demonstrated Chile's universal choice market has actually enhanced segregation at the expense of poor students. And as one might expect, this has negatively impacted the poor. In response, Chile is currently debating a variety changes to their system similar to what you are suggesting—a cap and quotas.

But I doubt our courts would permit a regulated voucher system, allowing the government to control what private schools charge for tuition and who they must admit. So, since these controls wouldn't be on the table, students with capital (such as high test scores, dollars above the cap, transportation, etc.) would always be "winners" in the market. In short, vouchers have the potential to promote even more segregation and inequality than we see today.

Schneider: And that's exactly why most market-proponents have thrown their support behind charters instead of vouchers. Because without the regulations I proposed, vouchers fail the sniff test on equity. Charters, on the other hand, are public schools, and as such they can't engage in selective admissions (though clearly we see charters driving kids away through some very intentional policies) and they can't charge tuition. They introduce choice into the system without so obviously favoring the privileged.

Of course, charters come with their own set of problems. First, you never know what you're going to get when you build a school from scratch—sometimes charters are great, sometimes they're wretched, and mostly they're adequate. And second, because of the intense marketing around charters, they tend to drain off the most engaged parents in a district.

So I'm wondering: is there a third way vis-à-vis school choice? Maybe we can talk about that Thursday.

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