The Pros and Cons of School Choice and Vouchers

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With the new administration, the Department of Education is poised to push a school choice program throughout the country which would offer students vouchers that they can use for private school tuition.  Many have debate the effects such a policy would have on public schools and education in general.   No matter what your political affiliation or whether you are for or against vouchers, it’s important to realize that this is a complicated and complex issue.  Here are six arguments (both pros and cons) and some counterarguments to consider.

Pro: School taxes punish families that choose private schools.

If you send your children to private schools, not only are you shelling out thousands for private school tuition, but you’re also required to pay public school taxes, which may be several thousands of dollars.  In essence, families that choose private schools are having to pay for both a school system they use and don’t use, which is an unfair punishment for families that choose private schools.

The counterargument…

In most states, school taxes are incorporated into property taxes.  If you own property, regardless of if you have children, you’re essentially paying for public schools.   Therefore, there may be many that pay for public schools that don’t necessarily directly benefit (i.e. families without school-age children).  Public school taxes are part of property taxes because good schools benefit the community, and housing prices benefit from good, local schools.

For further consideration…

Some might argue that a public school tax is nothing compared to a private school tuition of $40,000, and if they can afford that type of tuition, they can afford a public school tax.  However, the average private school tuition is $8,908 for elementary and $13,538 for high school.  If one is paying $3,000 for public school tax, that might represent a significant percentage compared to private school tuition.  Not all private school tuitions are equal, and not all school taxes are equal.

Con: School choice will financially devastate public schools.

For states that are accustomed to a system where everyone pays a public school tax, allocating a portion of that money to private schools instead of public schools will result in less resources for schools.  It might mean less funding for various programs, staff, and salaries.  Reduced salaries means greater turnover, resulting in a less qualified teacher force.  Furthermore, if students that would attend public schools move to private schooling, the cost per student will go up significantly due to the reduction of students.  Schools will suffer most in districts and states where a school’s funding is directly tied to enrollment numbers.

The counterargument…

Public school is not free.  When you average out the expenses, it costs the government an average of over $10,000 per student.  In some states like Utah, that average is closer to $6,000, but in D.C. and New York, that average is closer to $18,000.  Let’s say a family is paying $3,000 in public school taxes and sends three kids to public school.  That means their family’s education bill is $30,000, but they are only paying 10% in school taxes.  

In a school choice program, the government is unlikely going to foot the bill for an entire private school tuition.  Instead, they would offer a voucher, and families would be required to pay the difference in tuition.  Let’s say the voucher is $5,000 per student.  In such a case, the government is paying half of the cost of what it would cost to educate those students in a public school.  Current subsidies vary by state, but comprehensive studies demonstrate consistently that school choice programs save the government millions of dollars.

For further consideration…

Much of this argument centers not on what funding public schools receive but how that funding is determined.  If the funding is solely based on enrollments, then yes, in a school choice program, public schools risk receiving less money, which will no doubt limit resources. However, if states consider the specific needs of the schools in terms of real costs, then it stands to reason that a school choice program could actually save the government millions, and that money could be allocated more generously to schools.  

Pro: Private schools save the government money and should reap financial benefit.

5.4 million children (10% of total K-12 students) attend private schools.  On average, it costs the government over $10,000 to educate a child.  This means that private schools are saving the government an estimated total of $54 billion (assuming no government money is being provided to private schools).  Even in states that have school choice programs, the vouchers are a fraction of the real cost that it takes to educate a child.  Since private schools are saving the government so much money, they should receive financial help in the form of vouchers.  It should also be noted that most private school students do not pay full tuition, which makes the vouchers that much more necessary for the school to continue saving the government money.

Counterargument…

Institutions, such as private schools, that alleviate a burden from the government already receive government relief in the form of tax exemption.  This represents an enormous savings for schools, who would otherwise have to shell out taxes for the income they receive in tuition payments.  Private schools should have no expectation of receiving additional government assistance.  Furthermore, a school choice program may be short lived and eliminated in a turnover of administration.  If that were to happen, private schools would suffer from an immediate withdrawal of government funds.

For further consideration…

The government does fund privately run schools.  This is the charter school system.  Unlike private schools, they are open to the public, offer free tuition, and are not religiously based.  In most cases, they are free from government oversight and academic standards that are placed on public schools.  In some cases, charter schools may be run by for-profit companies.  The question to be considered is how different are private schools from charters?  And if the issue is that a school is religious in nature, are they being penalized for that religious distinction, especially if they meet or exceed the standards set on charter schools?

Con: Funding religious schools violates the separation of church and state.

The vast majority (79%) of private school students attend religious schools.  This means that in a school choice program, most of the funds would be used to further the mission of a religious organization.  This is a clear violation of the separation of church and state.

Counterargument…

A school choice program is not being used to directly fund private schools.  It is utilizing a voucher that is connected to a student who then chooses which school they attend.  In a sense, the government is not giving to the school directly but to the student.  Like they do currently, students choose which school to fund with tuition dollars.

For further consideration…

Although in many states, the government provides grants to private schools, many schools are leery about taking government dollars.  As is generally the case, government funds come with strings attached.  The separation of church and state is not just a value for secularists, it’s a value for those who wish to keep their religious practices free from government control.  A recent example of this was President Obama’s executive order that required schools which accepted federal money  to adhere to transgender bathroom usage rules.  For a religious school, adhering to such a rule might cause tremendous conflict.  Furthermore, some states have very specific requirements for schools to accept government funds, and many private schools may place a higher value on their independence than a little extra money.

Pro: School choice creates healthy competition.

Competition benefits society because organizations and companies are forced to improve the quality of their production in order to win customer loyalty.  In places where students must attend a school based on where they live, there is no competition, thus little incentive to improve.  In fact, there’s so little competition that the government had to create artificial competition by forcing schools to compete for federal dollars.  The problem with this is that much of the competition centered around student achievement.  Thus, schools that had low performing students (which has much to do with dysfunctional family life) didn’t receive the funding they needed to help improve, only producing a more deprived environment for already struggling students.

Certain states, such as Colorado, have a school choice program which allow students to choose which public school they attend.  Since funding is tied to enrollments, it incentivizes schools to retain students, rather than merely incentivizing high test scores.  In other words, it creates incentives for teachers to foster the student’s well-being and not just focus on a high stakes test performance.  If a student has a negative overall experience (even though they have a high test score), they may choose to switch schools, causing a potential loss in funding for the school that they’re leaving.

Competition is a central part of private school culture.  School administrators are concerned with how their school’s test scores, college acceptance rates, extracurricular programs, school culture, etc. measures up to neighboring schools.  At the end of the day, private schools are competing for the best enrollment in a pool of prospects.  That type of competition naturally creates better schools, which benefits students and families.

Counterargument…

What we have seen recently in the charter school arena is that more and more charter schools are popping up in order to compete for federal funding.  However, a growing number of charter schools have come under federal investigation for using government funds in fraudulent ways.  In some cases, charter schools have misused funds and gone bankrupt overnight, leaving students without a school to attend.  What this epidemic has demonstrated is that greater federal funding with less government oversight increases the likelihood of abuse.  

Furthermore, not only do private and charter schools lack government accountability in regards to how funds are used, but they lack student achievement accountability.  Competition may be good, but a system of choice may result in schools competing on who has better sports facilities instead of the scholastic standards that matter the most.  

For further consideration…

Whether we’re talking about healthcare, mortgages, or education, there is always a tension between a free market and government accountability.  It’s really a philosophical discussion about which is better – more government control or a free market that self governs?  Generally more government control means less efficiency but less government control means more abuses.  Where the Department of Education lands on this will shift depending on who is in charge.

Con: School choice will remove all the “good kids” from public schools.

In a school choice program, students wishing to attend private schools will need to apply just like current private school prospects do.  Because of this, private schools are not likely to accept poor performing or behaving students who most likely would benefit the most from a private school education.  Instead, it will be the highest performing students that will have the highest likelihood of attending a private school, which will result in depriving public schools of the highest caliber of students.  Schools which receive funding based on student achievement will lose funding because the highest caliber of students will be lured away to better performing schools.  

Counterargument…

Those wishing to eliminate class warfare should embrace a school choice program.  The current system penalizes poorer families, since private schools are only available to those who can afford tuition.  While one might argue that high performing students might leave the public school system, why should we restrict a high achiever from better opportunities solely because they lack means?  A merit based system is a more equitable system than our current one, which is based on wealth.  

Furthermore, a school choice program offers the opportunity for private schools to focus on the underprivileged.  In Wisconsin, a state that extends school choice to private schools, the Milwaukee-based Hope Christian Schools focus on educating students from impoverished families.  This would not be possible if it weren’t for vouchers that subsidize the cost of tuition.  

For further consideration…

One must recognize that the biggest influence to a person’s education success isn’t what school they attend but the stability of their home life.  Why is it that private schools have less qualified teachers and administrators (in terms of degrees), smaller salaries, less funding, less adherence to academic standards, and still outperform public schools on standardized tests?  The answer is that students who can afford private schools generally come from more stable homes where families take an interest in the education in which they’ve invested a lot of money.  Studies have consistently shown that parent involvement is one of the biggest indicators of student success.

Public school was created to give everyone the opportunity of an education.  And while it has largely succeeded in its endeavor, it has always struggled with trying to solve the problems of the students whose home lives are in shambles with unengaged parents.  In most cases, private schools have been content to let the public system address that demographic, while it focuses on more affluent families.  School choice may create some equality by offering opportunity based on merit, but it most likely won’t solve the educational problems that stem from a dysfunctional home life.  That is an issue that the Department of Education will never be able to solve, nor should we ever expect it (no matter the administration) to do so.

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