The Point of Vouchers

Improving Educational Outcomes is Not the Point of Vouchers. In 2017, I wrote a post on RestoreReason.com titled “Vouchers: Some Common Sense Questions” that supported this fact. I’ve included some of the original post below. My updated comments, now six years later are included in italics below.

Just for a few moments, I’d like to ask you to please forget whether or not you believe school choice and vouchers are the answer to “Make American Education Great Again.” Forget all the hype and promises, just ask yourself which of these scenarios makes more sense?

Accountability and Transparency

Which is more accountable and transparent to parents, the taxpayers, and voters, and therefore less likely to experience less fraud, waste, and abuse? #1 Hint to the answer. #2 Hint to the answer. #3 Hint to the answer.
a. District schools that must report every purchase, competitively bid out purchases over a certain amount, have all purchases scrutinized by a locally elected governing board, undergo an extensive state-run audit each year, and are publicly reported on for performance efficiency and student achievement by the AZ Auditor General’s office each year?
b. A voucher system that puts the onus on recipient parents to submit proof of expenditures to an understaffed AZ Department of Education office responsible for monitoring the $37 million ($99.7 million from 2011 to 2017) in voucher expenditures for 4,102 different students?

Arizona’s ESA voucher program had over 50,000 recipients in March 2023 and is now costing the state over $500 million annually, with less oversight than ever. In fact, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne bragged earlier this year that his office had approved 22,500 expenditures for reimbursement ($22 million worth), in a single day. And, the State Board of Education recently approved Horne’s new ESA Parent Handbook which actually decreases accountability.

Student Achievement

Which is more likely to be held accountable for student achievement and thereby taxpayer return on investment? Hint to the answer.
a. A district school where students are given a standardized state test with scores rolled up to the state and made public, where data is reported (following federal guidelines for data protection) by subgroups to determine achievement gaps, and where high school graduation and college attendance rates are reported?
b. A private school that does not provide any public visibility to test results and where the state (per law) has no authority to request or require academic progress from voucher recipients or the school?

Horne’s new ESA parent handbook (which previously stated a bachelor’s degree was required) now only requires a high school diploma instead of subject-matter degrees or certification. This move provides parents no guarantee that their child’s teachers have the knowledge or skill to teach core subjects. 

In addition, special education students desiring vouchers were previously required to be evaluated by a public school and receive a plan detailing their specific educational needs. Now, those students can be assessed by a doctor or psychologist, or at a private school. Keep in mind though, that, unlike public schools, private schools can refuse any student they don’t want to accept.

Funding for Public Schools

Which is more likely regarding the portability (with no impact) of per-student funding when students leave their district schools?
a. When a student leaves a district school with their education funding in their backpack, they take all associated expenses with them?
b. That there are fixed costs left behind (approx. 19%) that the school is required to still fund such as teachers and other staff that cannot be eliminated just because a couple of students left a classroom, or a bus route that can’t be done away with just because one student is no longer taking that bus, or a building air conditioner that can’t be turned off because the occupancy in the classrooms is down by three students. What the “drain” causes instead, is larger class sizes, fewer support services, less variety in the curricula, etc.?

The good news (if there is any), is that 75% of the students now taking vouchers, did not attend a public school before they qualified for a voucher. In other words, the vast majority were already attending private schools and therefore did not cause a massive drain of students from public schools. The bad news is that the cost to the state fund for the voucher program is unsustainable and if it doesn’t bankrupt the state, it will reduce funding for public education.

Are Vouchers Helping Disadvantaged Students?

Which is more likely to serve disadvantaged students — the ones most in need of our help? Hint to the answer.
a. A district school, where the vast majority of educational expenses are covered by the taxpayer, where students are transported from their home to school, where free and reduced lunches are provided, and which must accept all comers?
b. A $5,200 voucher to a private or parochial school that has total control over which students they accept, does not provide transportation, and costs an average of $6,000 for elementary schools in 2016-17?

ESA vouchers in Arizona now provide approximately $7,000 per student, regardless of household income. Not surprisingly, the cost of private school tuition has also gone up to an average of $9,576 per year for elementary school and $13,902 for high school. After all, why wouldn’t private school operators raise tuition when the voucher amount increases? 

Obviously, the most disadvantaged students will have a hard time finding their way to private schools considering the $2,500 to $7,000 out-of-pocket expense just for tuition. That doesn’t even take into account the requirement for parents to provide transportation and, the lack of any sort of free or reduced meal program. 

When it comes to transparency, accountability, and equity, district schools outperform private schools. I’d also like to make the unequivocal claim that district schools also (across the board) produce more achievement than private schools, but they don’t report their results so I don’t know that for sure.

Are Vouchers Producing Better Academic Outcomes?

National education expert Diane Ravitch recently reported that “new evaluations of vouchers in Washington, D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio show some of the largest test score drops ever seen in the research record–between -0.15 and -0.50 standard deviations of learning loss.” If you aren’t a professional educator, those numbers might not mean much to you. Let’s just say that the learning loss was similar to that experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic and larger than what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans academics. 

Ravitch goes on to say that this is happening because “elite private schools with strong academics and large endowments often decline to participate in voucher plans. Instead, the typical voucher school is a financially distressed, sub-prime private provider often jumping at the chance for a tax bailout to stay open a few extra years.”

No matter how much sugar the privatizers try to coat vouchers with, they are still just a vehicle for siphoning tax dollars away from our district community schools to private and parochial (religious) schools with no accountability or transparency. For every person who says “parents have the right to use their child’s education tax dollars as they see fit”, I say, “and taxpayers have the right to know the return on investment for their tax dollars.” The former right in no way “trumps” the latter.

Every Family for Themselves

Peter Greene, a well-recognized education blogger, recently wrote a post on his blog “Curmudgucation”, titled “Vouchers are About Abandoning Public Education, Not Freeing Parents”. He says we should think of vouchers this way,

“The state announces, ‘We are dismantling the public education system. You are on your own. You will have to shop for your child’s education, piece by piece, in a marketplace bound by very little oversight and very few guardrails. In this new education ecosystem, you will have to pay your own way. To take some of the sting out of this, we’ll give you a small pocketful of money to help defray expenses. Good luck.’

It’s not a voucher system. It’s a pay your own way system. It’s a you’re on your own system. The voucher is not the point of the system; it’s simply a small payment to keep you from noticing that you’ve just been cut loose.

Freedom and empowerment will come, as always, in direct proportion to the amount of money you have to spend.”

Greene warns that “the voucher amount will dwindle” as public schools are left with those students who don’t have any other option. “Vouchers,” he says, are “the tail, not the dog. They are the public-facing image of privatization– and not just privatization of the “delivery” of education. Voucherization is also about privatizing the responsibility for educating children, about telling parents that education is their problem, not the community’s.”

Improving educational outcomes is not the point of vouchers. The point, my friends, is to reduce the power of the people, by reducing the size of government and diminishing our voice. The point is to dismantle the public square and the common good, leaving us all to fend for ourselves in a sort of hunger games that only the game masters (the rich and powerful) win. 

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