How Do School Vouchers Fit In?
Vouchers seem open to criticism from both liberals and libertarians. Liberals argue that they undermine traditional public schools by siphoning money from public schools, that must educate everyone, toward private schools that can be more selective. On principle, libertarians generally disagree with any taxpayer funding for education, and could worry that any system offering public money for private enterprise could lead to increased—and unwanted—government regulation. Is there a role for vouchers in U.S. education?
The idea of school vouchers gained modern intrigue when it was suggested by the Nobel prize-winning economist, Milton Friedman, in his influential 1955 paper, “The Role of Government in Education.” Friedman advocates reducing state control of education by creating a voucher mechanism to redirect public funds toward parents, allowing them more education choice for their children. Friedman argues for the “denationalization of education,” and recognized vouchers as a tool in this process. He writes:
Given, as at present, that parents can send their children to government schools without special payment, very few can or will send them to other schools unless they too are subsidized. Parochial schools are at a disadvantage in not getting any of the public funds devoted to education; but they have the compensating advantage of being run by institutions that are willing to subsidize them and can raise funds to do so, whereas there are few other sources of subsidies for schools. Let the subsidy be made available to parents regardless where they send their children—provided only that it be to schools that satisfy specified minimum standards—and a wide variety of schools will spring up to meet the demand. Parents could express their views about schools directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending them to another, to a much greater extent than is now possible.
Friedman made the distinction between government paying for schooling and running the schools. Vouchers were a method to publicly-fund education but avoid monopoly control of schooling. It is similar to food stamps in providing public money to feed hungry citizens while not requiring those citizens to eat only from government-run grocery stores.
To Friedman and others, vouchers are a step forward in “denationalizing” education by freeing public funds and loosening the government grip on forced schooling.
Of course, Friedman argued that vouchers should go toward schools that meet “specified minimum standards.” Here is where vouchers can get tricky. With public money comes public scrutiny. The danger is that private schools accepting public vouchers could become heavily regulated, limiting their freedom, originality, and autonomy. Like many charter schools, voucher-accepting private schools could look and act more like public schools, diminishing their capacity for innovation. They could be required to take the same standardized tests or follow the same standardized curriculum. Private schools could become the wolf in sheep’s clothing—government-funded and increasingly government-controlled.
In creating an artificial market for public funds, as opposed to private dollars, tuition prices would likely surge. This could prevent many families from accessing the private schools, even with the voucher. Higher prices could prompt additional regulatory oversight, recreating the bureaucratic layers that vouchers purport to dismantle.
School Vouchers Are Not the Only Option
Are there any other education choice options that avoid the potential pitfalls of vouchers?
Yes! Vouchers are only one of four primary school choice mechanisms, along with individual tax credits, tax credit scholarships, and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs allow families to set aside a portion of their public school tax dollars in a government-approved savings account—if they leave public school. While still opening up the possibility to heightened government regulation and oversight, ESAs differ from vouchers in acknowledging that education is much broader than schooling. ESA funds may be used for an array of education options, ranging from tutoring, online learning, community classes, homeschooling supplies, private schools, and even college tuition. The sheer quantity and variety of education options that ESAs could cover may help to limit government overreach and avoid driving up prices on any singular mode of education.