My adopted state of Florida recently passed a school voucher program that would pay $130 million to private schools to pay the tuition for 18,000 students. If the voucher plan is not ruled unconstitutional (as it was in 2006), the state plans to expand it to include families with ever higher incomes. This plan has been praised by conservatives who support it by appealing to the benefits of school choice.
While strong support for public education has been bi-partisan at times, it is currently split along ideological grounds. As such most opposition to vouchers comes from the left and they advance a variety of stock arguments. First, it is argued that the voucher system is intended to transfer public money to private businesses, thus making it a form of “wealthfare” in which public money benefits businesses that are already well-off. Second, it is argued that vouchers take money from underfunded public schools that desperately need funding. Florida, while not the worst, is near the bottom for spending per student and teacher pay. There are many unfilled teaching positions, schools with broken air-conditioning, and teachers routinely must buy their own classroom supplies. Third, it is argued that vouchers are often a tool to channel public money into religious institutions through their schools. Fourth, it is argued that the voucher system is intended to undermine public education to maintain the existing class system and to undermine the bedrock of democracy. While I do agree with these arguments, it is worth considering the proposed merits of vouchers. After all, to simply embrace or shun something solely on ideological grounds would be to reject critical thought. As such, I will consider some of the reasons advanced in favor of voucher programs.
One set of reasons can be grouped under what I will call the “better student argument.” The gist of this argument is that vouchers are good, because it results in better students. To be specific, choice advocates point out that private schools have better safety, better academic performance and better graduation rates than public schools. From this, they contend, it follows that vouchers are beneficial.
It certainly makes sense that the private schools have better students than public schools—this is because they can select their students and public schools must take everyone (with some limits). There is also the fact that parents who would use the voucher program would tend to be more engaged. To use an analogy, comparing the two is like comparing intramural teams which must take everyone and varsity teams that have strict tryouts and cuts. The varsity teams will almost always be better teams. But it is not being varsity that makes the varsity team better—it is the selection process. The fast runner is not fast because she is on the varsity team, she is on the varsity team because she is fast. The same holds for the private schools—they get better students because they are free to reject the ones they do not want.
One could also use an analogy to public health: the private schools are like hospitals that can select their patients and exclude those they do not want. Public schools are like hospitals that must take everyone. Such exclusionary hospitals would have far better outcomes than the public hospitals—because they would select the better patients and would be getting more money. However, this would hardly be a good solution to public health.
On the one hand, if your child is a good student and can get accepted by a private school, then the voucher program would be appealing. You can get your child into a school with a better class of students. On the other hand, if your child is the problem child or bad student that other children are trying to escape, then the voucher program will not help you—your child will be stuck in an ever-declining public-school system. While this might be seen as just a problem for the children who cannot escape and their parents, these children are part of society and are thus everyone’s concern even if the concerns are purely pragmatically about crime and employability. Using a public health analogy, abandoning people into a declining public health care system puts everyone at greater risk.
If it is replied that the problem students will also get vouchers, then the obvious problem is that private schools will no longer be better or safer. Going back to the sports analogy, this would be like varsity teams trying to still claim to be better while responding to criticism about leaving people out by opening the teams up to everyone. They would soon cease to be better. Likewise for the voucher program: if it is open to all children, then the public schools would simply be replicated in private form. If the schools are exclusionary, then people will be left behind in what are acknowledged to be more dangerous and inferior schools. As such, the better student argument is problematic. Excluding the “problem” students so that the private schools are better means abandoning these citizens to declining public education—which will hurt everyone. Opening the schools up to everyone would mean they would be the same as public schools, so they would not be better. The discussion continues in the next essay.