Myth: Vouchers will improve our schools.
Fact: Vouchers will stratify our schools by quality, income, race,
Christian conservatives would reform our public school with
vouchers -- that is, public funds that would follow a child to
whatever school (public or private) that the parents selected.
This freedom of choice is supposed to improve quality of education
by introducing market-type competition for students, but studies
show that voucher schools do not raise students' grades. The Supreme
Court has struck down vouchers for religious schools on the grounds
that it violates the separation of Church and State. Vouchers
also result in parents choosing schools that primarily consist
of their own class, race or religion. This would reverse 30 years
of desegregation and classroom diversity, which have helped to
raise test scores and diminish racism in our younger generations.
Vouchers make private educational companies less accountable to
the public, and allow them to pursue profits over quality of education.
Vouchers also upset the balance between parental and public control
over education, and diminish public cohesiveness by raising children
who do not share a common educational background with others.
One of the most heated controversies in education today is
that of school vouchers. Promoted by Christian conservatives,
this program would give each child a "voucher," or a
certain amount of public funds (say, $2,600 a year), that would
follow the child to whatever school the parents selected. It would
either pay or defray the costs of schooling, which could be either
public or private.
The reforming idea behind vouchers is that parents would enjoy
freedom of choice in the market of schools. Educators would compete
for as many vouchers as possible by offering the best education
possible. Schools that lost too many "customers" would
go bankrupt and be replaced by better ones. Supporters claim that
this retains the best of both worlds. All students, regardless
of their class or race, would still receive a publicly funded
education, but they would also benefit as consumers in a competitive
market that ostensibly produces the highest quality at the lowest
In their attempt to sell the voucher program, proponents often
falsely accuse the current public school system of being a failure.
According to the far right, our public schools are in need of
radical reform. (Namely, vouchers.) But this is a complete myth.
The U.S. high-school dropout rate has been falling for decades
now, and is lower than most prosperous nations. Achievement test
scores of all types have been rising among all demographic groups
of the American student body (although, paradoxically, the average
SAT score has slightly fallen, since a growing share of lower-scoring
minorities are taking it). The fact that our public schools are
seeing continual improvement takes much of the wind from the sails
of the radical reformers. The current system isn't perfect, but
we have seen what programs lead to improvement, and funding more
of these programs should lead to even more improvement.
The political agenda behind vouchers
Voucher proponents have a larger agenda: the public financing
of religious education, and the eventual elimination of public
education entirely. The religious right has been quite open about
its motives. Jerry Falwell says: "I hope I live to see the
day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any
public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and
Christians will be running them." Pat Robertson says: "They
say vouchers would spell the end of public schools in America.
To which we say, 'So what?'"
The religious right opposes public education because of the Establishment
Clause of the First Amendment, which says: "Congress shall
make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Public
schools are government-funded, so they are prevented from doing
anything that would establish a religion. The Establishment Clause
has been successfully used to remove prayer and the teaching of
Creation from public schools, which has caused the religious right
no small amount of chafing. Their proposed voucher system is actually
a back door for public funding of religious education, since they
propose the vouchers be used for any private schools --
including religious ones. But this would breach the wall separating
Church and State. The courts have come to this conclusion as well,
as they have regularly struck down vouchers for religious schooling
in the past. Nevertheless, vouchers remain a top priority on the
religious right's agenda.
Vouchers would also serve as an intermediate step towards the
complete dismantling of public education. To see why, it is first
necessary to understand a key difference between public and private
schools. Most private schools tend to cost more, and as a result
of their larger budgets, they offer better educations. Not surprisingly,
students who attend private schools generally come from wealthier
families. And wealthier families tend to have children with higher
IQ's, so they make better students in the first place. (Whether
high IQ's are a cause or result of wealth is a matter of controversy,
as The Bell Curve debate has shown.) Consequently, test
scores from private schools are usually higher than public schools.
Conservatives use this fact to argue that private schools are
inherently better than public schools, but this ignores the greater
funding that private schools enjoy, and the better students they
attract. Liberals argue that if public schools were given more
adequate funding, and if poverty could be reduced, they could
significantly reduce the gap.
But vouchers would only increase the disparity between public
and private schooling. Public school students would migrate to
private schools, especially those student with grades high enough
to get into those better schools. This would drain both critically
needed funds and good students from public schools. As public
schools deteriorated still further, conservatives would have even
more ammunition to attack them. Eventually public schools would
become so uneconomical that society could "save" money
by privatizing them completely.
Furthermore, vouchers would split up an important interest group
(parents) by eliminating their common meeting point (the schools)
and forcing them to compete with each other for the best educations
for their children. Also, schools could be gradually privatized
by increasing the percentage parents must pay by keeping vouchers
constant, or even cutting them.
THE FLAWS OF THE VOUCHER SYSTEM:
1. Vouchers do not work.
Perhaps the strongest argument against vouchers is that they
simply do not work. Since the early 1990s, Milwaukee has been
the site of the nation's largest and most watched voucher program.
Low-income students are given $3,600 a year to attend any participating,
non-religious school of their choice. However, the students who
have taken advantage of the program (leaving public schools for
private ones) have experienced no academic improvement. Both their
math scores and English scores have remained the same. (1) (We
should note that this failure highlights the role that poverty
also plays in suppressing test scores.)
In addition, problems of participation have emerged. Student involvement
in the program fell far short of its hopes. Out of 1,450 slots
created for low-income students in 1994, only 830 were taken.
Of all students who switched to private schools, 40 percent did
not return the next year. (2)
In California, where a voucher system has been proposed, a survey
of 1,004 private schools found that there wasn't enough space
in private schools to accommodate public school students wishing
to transfer. The researchers wrote: "Less than 1% of public
school students can expect to find additional spaces in private
schools under existing conditions." (3)
And this problem is compounded by the fact that the better the
private school, the less desire the school has to accept voucher
students from public schools. Of all low- to medium-tuition private
schools, 80 percent said they would be willing to accept such
students. However, only 56 percent of the high-tuition schools
said they would be willing. What's worse, the high-tuition schools
also reported having the least open spaces for new students. (4)
If the best schools do not participate, then the theoretical benefits
of a voucher program are slight to begin with.
2. Vouchers would stratify education and society
Another important criticism of vouchers is that they would
stratify schools by income, class, race and religion. Before examining
the ways in which vouchers would divide our school population,
let's review the reasons why classroom diversity is important.
Public schools currently serve as America's melting pot, where
children from all walks of life grow up together. They learn that
diversity is normal, which makes them much more accepting of and
open-minded to people who are different from them. When people
live in communities where everyone is the same, then people who
are different are an unknown entity, and people usually feel fear
and hostility towards the unknown. One of the great benefits of
desegregation in the 50s and 60s was that a generation of children
grew up with much less racist attitudes than their parents.
Another benefit of diversity is that it opens up intellectual
horizons. When people of the same mindset get together to study,
they merely reinforce their own prejudices and beliefs. The value
of dissenting (or just plain different) voices is that they bring
new viewpoints to the discussion, challenge people to look at
things in new ways, and point out errors that a single-minded
group might have missed. This effect has long been known at the
university level, where different-minded professors are intentionally
brought together in the process of peer review, which results
in lively and helpful debate. In the long run, this diversity
of opinion usually brings scholars closer to the truth.
Yet another benefit of diversity is that it allows differently-abled
students to help each other. Educators have long known the benefits
of letting children teach each other, because they speak each
other's language and understand each other's thought processes.
The best students set the standard, and allow other students to
see what is possible. Struggling students receive help from the
best students, who also benefit, because one of the best ways
to learn is to teach. Unfortunately, in classrooms where the best
students are removed (say, to better schools), then all these
benefits disappear, and the poor students usually engage in a
race to the bottom. This process is called "ghettoization,"
named after the phenomenon of minorities trapped in ghettoes,
who do not have the resources to help each other and consequently
see their conditions deteriorate.
Public schools today are the result of 30 years of desegregation,
busing and other policies intended to promote diversity within
the classroom. There has been considerable resistance to these
programs by middle and upper class whites, and it is not difficult
to see how they would resurrect segregation if they had their
choice. But, under desegregation, black students have seen their
test scores rise (even faster than white students have risen).
And every new generation is less racist than its parents'. The
reduction of black poverty is probably most responsible for these
trends, but certainly diversity shares some of the credit.
That said, how would vouchers kill diversity? By the so-called
"freedom of choice" offered by vouchers. "Freedom
of choice" is really a misnomer, a euphemism. What vouchers
actually offer is "freedom to exclude," and only to
those with the money or power to exercise this option.
The first way vouchers exclude is economically. A voucher's "freedom
of choice" is usually only for the rich. The poor are not
free to choose a private school that costs more than the voucher.
They are forced to accept whatever schools they can afford, which
will be underfunded and of poor quality. The rich, whose children
tend to be better students, will choose exclusive and more expensive
schools that keep out the poor and disadvantaged. And this division
also bears a racial cast, since whites tend to be significantly
richer than minorities.
The second way vouchers exclude is racially. Whites tend to seek
schools with the fewest number of minorities. However, as many
schools grow whiter, the minorities in them will become more uncomfortable
with the racism and hostility they experience every day, and will
seek refuge in minority schools. Hence, racial segregation will
The third way is by religion. Church schools almost always accept
students only from their own denomination. In the Seventh-day
Adventist schools this author attended, for instance, only Seventh
day Adventist children were admitted.
Voucher proponents claim that parents will seek academic quality
first and foremost, but studies show that parents focus on social,
not academic, criteria in selecting their schools. Political scientists
Kevin Smith and Ken Meier researched school data from Florida
and found that private school enrollment was motivated mostly
by religion and the apparent desire to escape minorities. Other
reasons for choosing a school included good athletic programs,
proximity to the home, attendance by friends in the same social
groups or income class, or the school's "elite" reputation
(regardless of whether that reputation is deserved). (5) Furthermore,
"freedom of choice" in the market of schools presupposes
that parents are fully informed about their choices. But poor
parents, and parents from discriminated minorities, usually have
the least amount of information, connections and opportunities
to realize their full freedom of choice. As a result, those parents
who need choice the most often have the least of it.
Yet it would be mistaken to believe that the voucher program's
"freedom of choice" belongs primarily to the parents.
Actually, it belongs to the schools. The evidence is overwhelming
that private schools select students for their high academic achievement
or membership in a select social group. Low-achieving students
from public schools don't stand much of a chance of being accepted
into private schools seeking academically superior students. Indeed,
in the Milwaukee voucher experiment, the best private schools
simply declined to participate in the program. Also, most parents
would like to enroll their children in private schools to escape
the crime, drug abuse and discipline problems of public schools,
but private schools generally refuse students from such backgrounds.
Again, it is not difficult to see how vouchers would stratify
society by every division imaginable.
These observations are supported by broad empirical evidence collected
from other nations. The American Prospect reports:
Canada's British Columbia has subsidized
private schools; wealthier and better educated parents took these
subsidies, leaving public school students in a less advantaged
3. Vouchers for religious schools are unconstitutional.
"Since 1959, the French government has paid salaries of all
teachers, public and private. Though France attempts to limit
inequality by requiring comparable public and private class sizes,
rich students are disproportionately enrolled in subsidized private
schools, leaving immigrant students concentrated in the public
"Israel recently established alternative schools with differing
philosophies and curricula. They are academically superior to
neighborhood schools; parents who choose them are wealthier and
more educated. Choice schools are islands of excellence for the
rich while Israel struggles to assimilate immigrants from North
Africa and Russia.
"Holland's choice system is 85 years old. The government
pays for buildings and teacher salaries for any school that parents
establish; two-thirds of all schools are privately run. School
choice in Holland has enabled "white flight" from Turkish
and Moroccan neighborhood schools. Recent Dutch studies show that
Muslim students in segregated classrooms do worse than those who
are in integrated classrooms, while most Dutch parents choose
schools based on the socioeconomic status of students already
enrolled, not on the school's academic performance.
"Scotland got school choice in 1982; parents can send children
to private or public schools outside their local district. According
to a recent study by professors Doug Willms and Frank Echols,
27 percent of children whose parents were professionals chose
to escape neighborhood schools, but less than .5 percent of children
whose parents were semi-skilled blue-collar workers did so. Twenty-four
percent of college-educated parents' children, but less than 1
percent of children whose parents had no college, escaped."
Another problem with vouchers, as mentioned above, is that
they violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Obviously, public funding of religious schooling breaches the
wall separating Church and State. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck
down such direct funding on a regular basis (PEARL v. Nyquist,
1973; Grand Rapids v. Ball, 1985; Felton v. Aguilar, 1985; and
Mueller v. Allen, 1987). Furthermore, 32 state constitutions explicitly
prevent it as well. In the Milwaukee voucher experiment, the courts
only allowed private, non-sectarian schools to participate. Thus,
any voucher program that included religious schools would be certain
to raise expensive legal battles.
First Amendment defenders also have another strong argument against
vouchers. And that is that the U.S. Supreme Court has frequently
interpreted the Establishment Clause to mean that government should
not do anything to increase "political division along religious
lines," which would be "a threat to the normal political
process." (7) The divisiveness of vouchers is clear, in that
they would eliminate diversity and promote religious isolationism.
Christian conservatives protest that they are "doubly taxed"
on education, since they not only pay taxes for public school,
but also tuition for private school. Hence vouchers are a way
of establishing fairness for parents who send their children to
private schools. This argument, however, is fallacious for several
First, the government does not force parents to send their children
to private schools, and their tuition cannot honestly be called
a "tax." It is a voluntary expenditure. Second, the
"double taxation" argument hides the fact that all citizens
have to pay taxes for public schools, whether they use them or
not. For example, single people without children have to pay the
tax as well -- as they should, since they benefit from an educated
society. Taxes are a universal obligation, like private car owners
who must still pay taxes to support public transportation. Third,
the government is under no obligation to relieve someone of taxes
so they can afford something else. Tom may want to buy a new car,
but it would be wrong of him to insist that the government should
relieve his tax payments for public schools so he can afford one.
Fourth, the "double taxation" argument is irrelevant,
because as long as the First Amendment exists in its present form,
the government simply cannot pay or otherwise compensate for religious
education. We should also remember that the First Amendment exists
at the will of the people, and Christian conservatives would first
have to change the majority of people's minds before they could
be relieved of their so-called "double taxation." (8)
4. Vouchers allow schools to escape accountability to the public.
Vouchers are designed to eliminate school accountability to
the public by placing it in private hands. This is not a good
idea, especially since the public pays for the vouchers. In the
Milwaukee experiment, the voucher program created many new problems
of administrative accountability. Several schools cheated the
city out of thousands of dollars by over-reporting the number
of voucher students they enrolled. (9)
Another failure of accountability occurred in Baltimore in the
early 90s, when the city government hired a private company called
Educational Alternatives, Inc., to run nine of the city's schools.
EAI was supposed to come in and succeed where government had failed,
by introducing the efficiency of private enterprise. Unfortunately,
there was no public oversight to make sure that EAI kept the students'
best interests at heart, rather than its own. Expensive services
like those for disabled children were slashed, even though EAI
was given a budget of $18 million more than the city was planning
to spend on those schools. The profits, of course, went to EAI.
A University of Maryland study independently confirmed that AEI
was spending more per student than other city schools, yet test
scores for students dropped at all nine schools, at a time when
test scores at other public school were rising. Class attendance
also lagged behind other schools. Three and a half years into
the company's five-year contract, the school board unanimously
voted to dump EAI.
Another failure of accountability occurred in Hartford, where
EAI won a contract allowing it to manage all 32 of its schools
under a $200 million budget. Under the contract's terms, the company
could keep half of everything it "saved" -- a euphemism
for "cut." In its efforts to maximize profits, the company
proposed firing 300 teachers. This would have degraded those schools'
quality by making classroom crowding even worse. At the same time,
EAI tried to get the city to increase its top-executive compensation
to $1.2 million. Outraged, Hartford subsequently took back 26
of its 32 schools. As James Carville put it, "Companies like
EAI have one bottom line, and, believe me, it isn't the well-being
of our kids." (10)
5. Vouchers upset the balance between parental and public control
Much of the controversy over vouchers is centered on the following
question: Who should control a child's education -- parents, or
On an instinctive level, parental control makes excellent sense.
After all, the parents gave birth to the child, and they probably
care more for it than anyone else. Naturally, they want to raise
the child the best way they can. Other authorities will not be
But having enormous parental concern for a child is a far different
thing from knowing what's best for that child. When children become
sick or injured, most parents do not attempt to cure them themselves;
they visit a doctor. When children need computers for schoolwork,
parents don't build them themselves; they buy them from expert
manufacturers and programmers.
The same goes for education. A parent cannot possibly know more
about every field of science than scientists specializing in those
fields, nor can parents know what qualifies as sound science better
than the professional educators and scientific philosophers who
select the curriculum. (Unless, of course, they happen to be epistemologists
themselves.) Parents have opinions and prejudices, to be sure,
but to select a school based on these criteria is to put the cart
before the horse. We should learn the data first, and then arrive
at our opinions; not the other way around. The selection of sound
scientific data is best left to professional, mainstream scientists
and educators. If parents want to supplement or critique a child's
public education, then that can be done at home or church. We'll
revisit this controversy shortly.
Even the very premise that all parents have their children's best
interest at heart is false. Although a great many parents do care
for their children, a great many also don't. In 1995, over 3 million
children under the age of 18 were reported to the police as victims
of child abuse and neglect. A Gallup poll of parents from the
same year found that 16 times as many cases went unreported. If
true, that would be approximately half of all children in America.
There is also a second kind of parent who fails to act in the
child's best interest. That is the well-meaning parent who doesn't
know any better, or is somehow prevented from pursuing the best
course of action. An example of the former is the Christian Scientist
who refuses simple medical treatment for a child, relying instead
on prayer that lets the child die unnecessarily. Or parents who
are ignorant and uneducated themselves. Or parents who are dysfunctional
because of alcohol, drugs, gambling or other pathologies, who
cannot escape the hell of their condition, and are unfit for parenting.
The value of public education is that it sets a reasonably good
standard of child education, care and development. If parents
want to improve on that at home, they are free to. However, if
children suffer from parental ignorance, abuse and neglect at
home, then public schools offer children a haven from their parents,
a place of remediation and help. Such a resource would not be
available to children if their parents could send them to a private
school that continued their mistreatment -- say, the David Koresh
Academy. Vouchers would only make such cultish private schools
more common, by making them more affordable to parents.
These are some of the issues over parental control of education;
what about public control?
We should first note that schools do not serve just individuals.
They also serve society. Public schools create social cohesion,
a common language and culture, a shared body of knowledge, and
a well-trained and interchangeable workforce. Any educational
system that disrupted this social cohesion and smooth-flowing
interdependence would fail society. The public would have a right
to demand changes to such a flawed system, especially since it
is paying for it.
Even without vouchers, private schools already tend to disrupt
social cohesion. The first reason, mentioned above, is that private
schools divide society into cliques, each with its own peculiar
belief system of how the world works. One needs only to consider
the nearly 3,000 different religions (and non-religions) in America
to see how radically different, bizarre and even undesirable many
of their curriculums are. For example, whereas secular schools
teach modern geology, biology and paleontology, many fundamentalists
schools teach that these sciences have been corrupted by the Devil.
The result of such different schooling is often two people who
meet in the real world and cannot understand, communicate or even
tolerate each other. Vouchers would make this even worse.
The second reason is that private schools are not responsible
to society, since they are not funded by them. Therefore their
curriculum can be anti-social. Militia members, for example, teach
their children how to handle firearms, in the belief that children
need to be protected from a society that is supposedly bent on
enslaving them. These children are also taught to freely sabotage
and steal from society, as in the case of the Montana Freemen.
Just imagine what a Militia High School would teach its children,
and how many more parents could afford such brainwashing, once
vouchers became available.
Our current public school system is a compromise between parental
control and public control. The textbooks in our public schools,
written by scientists and selected by educational experts, generally
represent the latest mainstream science. Because this education
is generally shared by everyone in the public school system, it
provides the nation's students with a shared body of knowledge.
However, this does not mean that parents do not have control over
what else their children learn. Parents are free to teach children
anything they want at home or church, no matter how brilliant
or ignorant, no matter how mainstream or eccentric.
The beauty of this compromise is that it retains the best of both
worlds. Children learn a common "language" at school,
and learn a second "language" -- that of their own particular
church or group -- at home. Otherwise, children attend private
schools that merely reinforce the peculiar beliefs they are already
taught at home. The key point here is that children are exposed
to two viewpoints, not deprived of one. They receive more information,
not less. This is also important because even if the parents do
not agree with the mainstream science taught in public schools,
it is important for the child to know it, if only to intelligently
refute it. In other words, it guards against the kind of brainwashing
that occurs when a child is exposed to only one point of view.
A variation of the theme: charter schools
School choice has been proposed in other variations as well.
The most important is charter schools. These are publicly funded
schools that are run by independent, private organizations. The
schools they run would continue to be apolitical, secular, non-profit
and state-certified, just like any public school. What's new is
that they would be free to reform their services according to
market demands. As with vouchers, parents may choose to send their
child to any school they desire, and public funds will automatically
follow the child to that school. Under this system, good schools
and teachers would thrive, but poor ones would go out of business,
and be taken over by the next organization.
Charter schools are an attempt to eliminate many of the flaws
for which the voucher system has been justifiably criticized.
Gone are worries over religious and political indoctrination;
charter schools would teach the same curriculum taught in public
schools today, only hopefully using better methods in better environments.
Charter schools would ostensibly eliminate disasters like the
ones Baltimore and Hartford experienced at the hands of Educational
Alternatives, Inc. If AEI had failed in a charter school system,
then it would have been replaced by a competitor. One could also
imagine that AEI would not have been given a monopoly on all 32
Hartford schools, but would have competed with other educational
Consequently, charter schools do enjoy some liberal support. Still,
many problems and potential dangers remain. Charter schools would
still result in a loss of classroom diversity, as students gravitated
towards their own clique schools. And there is still the problem
of unregulated private companies making their charter schools
unaccountable to the public.
Yet another danger is that profit, not education, remains the
company's bottom line. Quite often these two goals coincide, but
many times they do not. One can easily imagine a profit-driven
school that cuts the quality of its education but produces "consumer
satisfaction" by giving most students higher grades than
they deserve. (Perhaps a separate fast-track curriculum could
be offered to the 25 percent of students who will go on to college
and thus need to be legitimately prepared.)
There is also evidence that special education, which is expensive,
is a frequent casualty of charter schools. In one Arizona study,
for example, it was found that the majority of charter schools
do not serve the needs of disabled students who require special
In the U.S., about 400 charter schools were in some stage of operation
in the 1996-97 school year. The empirical evidence on their success
is mixed. The National Education Association writes:
"Some charter schools have shown improved attendance, discipline,
and parental involvement. But whether there's been improvement
in students' academic achievement is less clear. Researchers have
cautioned that accountability measures for charter schools are
too lax. In addition, there's been no examination of the effect
of charter schools on other public schools." (13)
This last point is critical, since charter schools cannot be called
a "success" if they merely draw the best students away
from public schools. The NEA continues:
"When well designed and operated, charter schools can become
change agents within the public school system by charting new
and creative ways of teaching and learning. When not so well designed
and operated, they can allow unprepared people to start schools
and undermine student learning. Whether charter schools are a
positive or negative force depends on how state charter laws are
written and applied." (14)
Return to Overview
of Church and State Home Page, citing John Witte, "The Milwaukee
Parental Choice Program," in School Choice: Examining
the Evidence, ed. Edith Rasell and Richard Rothstein.
of Church and State Home Page, citing Doerr, Menendez, and Swomley,
in The Case Against School Vouchers, pp. 47ff.
3. Marcella R. Dianda and Ronald G. Corwin, "What a Voucher
Could Buy: A Survey of Private Schools," survey conducted
by Southwest Regional Laboratory, cited in
Metro Educator, April, 1993.
of Church and State Home Page, citing Kevin Smith and Ken Meier,
The Case Against School Choice, pp. 64-79.
6. Richard Rothstein, "The
Myth of Public School Failure" The American Prospect
no. 13, Spring, 1993.
7. Chief Justice Warren Burger, Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971.
8. Paraphrased from Tom Peters,
"Are private school parents doubly taxed?" Separation
of Church and State Home Page.
of Church and State Home Page, citing Church and State,
April 1996, p. 15ff.
10. James Carville, We're Right, They're Wrong (New York:
Random House, 1996), pp. 101-103.
11. National Child Abuse Coalition,
"Fact Sheet: Child Abuse."
12. NEA Center for the Advancement of Public Education,
"In Brief: CHARTER SCHOOLS," November 1996.