Private School Vouchers: The Controversy

Published December 09, 2008 |
Learn more about the debate behind private school vouchers and whether they are a viable public school alternative for your child.
Stirring up a raging political, social, and economic debate, the issues of school vouchers is a hot topic among community leaders, members, and educators. School vouchers, which essentially work like a scholarship, allow parents to redirect the trajectory of educational funding. Instead of applying tax dollars to schools directly, vouchers allow tax money to be sent to individual families. With this approach, parents and families can choose how their educational tax money is spent, allowing students to attend private or public schools, as the tax money can be used to pay for private tuition costs. 
 
For proponents, vouchers offer students in failing schools access to greater educational opportunities in private schools. On the other side of the debate, many experts assert that vouchers, in the larger spectrum, will cause far more harm than good.
 
Vouchers and the Current State of Student Funding
 
While vouchers are still a relatively new concept and practice, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin approved of its state’s voucher-program in 1998, which supported family-ownership of educational tax funds for approximately 15,000 children. With this private funding, children can choose from either public, private, or religious schools. This verdict was appealed to the United States Supreme Court after its passing, but the judges of the Supreme Court voted to not hear the appeal; therefore, Wisconsin has been able to continue its voucher approach to education for nearly a decade. 
 
Today, similar to Wisconsin, many states continually offer vouchers as potential alternatives for school funding on election-issue ballots; as this issue comes to local and state-wide community forums, a heated debate seems inevitable. While families support an increased ownership over the direction of their child’s educational choices, school leaders and financial planners often express dire concern over the potential harms of the voucher- based approach.   
 
Vouchers and the Debate: What is the Conflict?
 
While many families believe that educational choices should be made by parents, school boards, and school officials, other educational experts assert that this approach is problematic. As Andrew J. Coulson from School Choices argues, “Government-run voucher programs are very controversial, and they have been criticized from two very different angles. The first body of criticism alleges that competitive markets are not well suited to the field of education, and that any school reform based on privatization, competition, and parental choice is doomed to failure.” 
 
Essentially, as Coulson reveals, some researchers believe that a voucher-based system would create a problematic educational dynamic, as schools would be run as businesses instead of educational institutions.  Many people who argue with this lens desire to keep the business and financial focuses of schools separate from the instructional processes of learning. Ultimately, schools should serve to educate—they should not be distracted by concerns of advertising to students, and they should not feel pressured on pulling students and families into their particular school. 
 
Adding to this first conflict, “The second body of criticism states that government-funded scholarships would not create a genuinely free educational market, but instead would perpetuate dependence on government funding and regulation to the continued detriment of families.” Aligning with this first critique, a free-market approach to education in America may instigate a new rise of government interference in the educational practices of schools. In an era where there are new governmental regulations and requirements on student performance and school instruction, many experts fear that vouchers will serve to enhance the government’s influence on schools and student learning in negative and over-powering ways.    
 
Vouchers and Positive Choices
 
Bringing national attention to the voucher debate, ABC News reporter John Stossel examined the pros and cons of vouchers in his report “Stupid in America.” To examine vouchers, Stossel investigated schools in New York City and Washington D.C. by using student-held cameras, as other states and large cities refused to allow ABC cameras into classrooms. When exploring the schools, Stossel discovered that many of the public schools revealed classrooms of unmotivated and un-disciplined students, as some teachers struggled to control the kids. Adding to this, some students reported that possession of drugs and drug-use on school property was a common practice in their public school campus. 
 
After encountering surprising and disappointing practices in the public schools that were reviewed and visited, a Gallup Poll study served as an even greater indicator of the strife on public campuses. The Gallup Poll revealed that “76 percent of Americans were completely or somewhat dissatisfied with their kids' public school.” 
 
While a majority of parents are dissatisfied with their child’s school’s performance, research shows that there is really no strong link between funding and student performance; therefore, simply increasing funding for schools will not solve the problem of the current state of public educational practices. As Jay Greene, the author of Education Myths, supports, ‘“If money were the solution, the problem would already be solved ... We've doubled per pupil spending, adjusting for inflation, over the last 30 years, and yet schools aren't better.’” In fact, school funding has increased by over 100 percent since 1971, while student performance has remained flat and unchanging.  
 
As many parents feel that their child’s school fails to meet learning and development needs and requirements, Stossel and fellow community members assert that vouchers would allow for a greater freedom of choice, allowing parents to choose the best school for their son or daughter, instead of being forced into a particular school based on one’s mere housing location. As Stossel articulates, vouchers create a competitive market, where “If people got to choose their kids' school, education options would be endless. There could soon be technology schools, science schools, virtual schools where you learn at home on your computer, sports schools, music schools, schools that go all year, schools with uniforms, schools that open early and keep kids later, and, who knows what else. If there were competition, all kinds of new ideas would bloom.” 
 
Ultimately, while vouchers do offer a choice, the lingering questions of the implications of this redirection of funding remain. Although an individual child may benefit from vouchers, the debate continues to stir as experts question how schools and communities would be affected as a result.

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