Many people see private school vouchers as a solution to the problem of underperforming schools in the United States. Allowing those who are unhappy with their public school the opportunity to enroll in a more favorable private school is often cited as a way for students to be happy and reach academic expectations, for public schools to benefit from competition, and for an equal education to be had by all who desire it. Controversy about their legality abounds, and the reality is that there is no uniform voucher system in the country and there is no one state with a model program for others to follow.
Keywords A Nation at Risk; Certified Teacher; Curriculum; Education Reform; Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program; Friedman, Milton; Jencks, Christopher; Low Income; Polarized; Private School; Public School; School; School Choice; Selective Admission; Teacher's Union; Under-Performing Schools; Voucher
In general terms, vouchers are tuition coupons parents can redeem to send their child to the public or private school of their choice. By giving the flexibility of choice to parents, all children are able to attend the school that may best serve their needs. The voucher idea has been around for over fifty years, but are presently only in a few U.S. states and on a limited basis (Jacobsen, 2004). Controversy about their legality abounds, and the reality is that there is no uniform voucher system in the country and there is no one state with a model program for others to follow.
At first glance, the rationale behind school vouchers seems simple enough. Under this system, the government will permit parents to send their children to any school they want — public or private — and provides grants in the form of coupons to make this possible. The establishment of a voucher system attempts to free public schools from holding a monopoly on education since with this system, parents who don't like a particular school can send their children elsewhere (Jencks, 1972). According to proponents, the voucher system could ultimately improve all schools and encourage innovation and high standards of excellence.
Those in agreement with the voucher system claim these grants could effectively overhaul the education system by generating needed competition for U.S. public schools. Ideally, disadvantaged students would benefit from getting out of some of the worst schools in the country and would enjoy higher academic achievement and enhanced social opportunities. Naysayers argue that public schools don't need the competition — they are already doing a fine job and need all the financial support they can get. By handing students vouchers to leave public schools, they say, both resources and children would flow out (Moe, 2001).
Most will agree that parents with the financial means already have the right of school choice by virtue of where they live, or that they can send their children to a particular private school (Garnett & Pearsall, 2005). Vouchers are seen as a way to help those parents and children for whom school choice is desired but is not a financial option.
In the 1950s, noted economist Milton Friedman argued in favor of the idea of education vouchers. He reasoned that public schools were a government-run monopoly and whether they performed well or not, were still provided with students and resources. This system gave schools little incentive to improve or innovate, and Friedman claimed that this was a reason the education system was stagnant and mediocre. He suggested that a voucher system would allow the government to provide subsidies but not operate as a supplier to a monopoly (cited in Moe, 2001).
Friedman believed that vouchers enabling any student to go to private schools if they choose to would help improve education for all. However, he acknowledged that these types of programs could still segregate students by race and income, so his innovative education ideas did not get much support. Although his original views about school choice were published in the 1950s, Friedman restated them forty years later when he said that the solution to the education system's problems is to privatize it (cited in Weil, 2002).
In the 1970s, Harvard academic Christopher Jencks suggested a regulated voucher system, where all children in a particular area would qualify for vouchers of a certain value, but children of low-income families would be entitled to larger vouchers. Jencks further proposed that private schools be required to accept the voucher as full tuition payment. Students with vouchers of a higher value would be more attractive to private schools, which would probably conclude that even if remediation were needed for those lower-performing voucher students, the schools would still find themselves ahead (Moe, 2001).
Jencks's ideas were shot down by teachers' unions and other education groups. Just one pilot program, in Alum Rock, California, was started in the 1970s, bearing only a vague resemblance to Jencks's original idea. The program ended after three years.
The Politics of Vouchers
By the end of the 1970s, there was still no serious talk of or support for vouchers as a way to improve the country's education system. At that time, reliance on the private sector and markets to improve schools was being thought of as a positive idea, but until Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, there was little support or even serious talk of school vouchers. Reagan spoke of choice and competition as important ways of improving the education system, and he actively lobbied for school vouchers. President Reagan's proposed legislation was not supported by Congress, but in 1983, A Nation at Risk was published. This report about the country's education system issued the warning that U.S. schools were in crisis and immediate reforms were necessary to attempt to improve their performance. Since this study was published, presidents and governors have attempted to be dubbed the "education president" or the "education governor" as a way to affirm their commitment to improving the education system (Moe, 2001).
In the beginning of the 1990s, Republican President George H. W. Bush proposed $1,000 vouchers for children whose families' income was below the national average. Although the legislation did not pass the Democratic Congress, it did gain the attention of the media and the public. Since teachers' unions helped elect Bill Clinton president in 1992, he was compelled to oppose the voucher system, but in the 1996 election campaign, Republican Bob Dole proposed vouchers for low-income families. The issue became polarized, with George W. Bush favoring vouchers for those in underperforming schools in the 2000 campaign, and Democrat Al Gore opposing vouchers of any kind (Moe, 2001).
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, President George W. Bush attempted to create a voucher program for affected students in Louisiana to enroll in the school of their choice. This effort was defeated by Congress, with some dissenters saying Bush's idea was more political opportunism at a time of tragedy than a way for students to get the best education possible ("After Katrina," 2005).
Since 2005, there has been little talk of vouchers on a national level. In those states that do have some type of voucher system in place, the types of school choice plans and public opinion can vary greatly. In a study conducted by a national research firm, it was found that when asked about their feelings for school vouchers, 11 percent of the respondents thought school vouchers were a good idea and would ultimately solve the country's education deficiencies; 67 percent of respondents thought vouchers were a good idea but wouldn't solve the nation's education problems, and 17 percent of the respondents said vouchers were not a good idea and would actually make our country's education problems worse (Weil, 2002).
Voucher Programs Today
As of 2013, voucher programs could be found in twelve states and the District of Columbia ("School voucher laws," 2013). School voucher programs in Cleveland, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Washington, D.C., all target low-income students in underperforming schools. Milwaukee's city-wide voucher program is intended for the very poor. Opponents argue that those served by this system are typically not those who pay taxes and the middle- and upper-middle-class taxpayers are subsidizing the education for the poor. As with all voucher systems, parents are actually being taxed twice whether they use it or not: first when they are funding public education for all and again when they are paying for vouchers to move children from public to private schools. The voucher program is not open to everyone in Milwaukee who may qualify — no more than 15 percent of a school district's students are eligible to receive the voucher to attend a private school.
There is a smorgasbord of variations on the school voucher program in other areas of the country; for example, a statewide voucher program in Ohio is open to those students enrolled in failing schools. Arizona has a voucher program specifically for children in foster care, and both Maine and Vermont offer vouchers for those students...
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