Vouchers: Uneven Competition?

As you probably know by now, our new President is set to propose a new education package that would give parents vouchers if the local public school was failing.

Vouchers advocates routinely use the competition metaphor: if the public school isn’t doing such a great job, won’t competition give parents (and their kids) a better choice, and meanwhile force the public school to improve?

That seems like a reasonable idea to me, on the surface. Competition is a good thing; it makes all of us in competitive situations do better. In a considerable number of situations, its absence galls me - from commercial radio, to the airline business as it will be a year from now if the Bush administration allows the mergers that are currently proposed. I’m all for competition.

But competition must be fair in order to work, and nobody’s really focused on the different constraints that public and private schools are operating under.

Public Schools:
Must take all students, regardless of ability (including ‘special needs’ students)
Can’t impose enrollment restrictions
Can expel students due to conduct only with great difficulty
Are usually required to have cafeterias and athletic facilities

Private Schools:
Can (and usually do) impose admissions standards
Can limit the size of their student body
Can expel students fairly easily
Aren’t required to have costly facilities

I’m sure there are other differential standards distinguishing the two, but that’ll certainly do, for starters.

The debate questions I have in mind are: to what extent should private schools be required to operate under the same constraints as public schools, in order to receive voucher money? If they’re allowed to compete, yet retain different standards, will there be any problems in the way it plays out, or will this turn out to be an improvement for our most disadvantaged students - the one Dubya wants to reach out to? Or will many students be left even further behind?

I’m quite definitely in favor of requiring private schools to compete on the same level with public schools, if they want to receive voucher money.

My suspicion is that if private schools are allowed to compete without changing their standards, this will be a ‘cream-skimming’ situation: it’ll work out well for a handful of the smartest students in poor schools, those who are willing to conduct themselves to private-school norms, and work sufficiently hard to keep up. (Let’s call them the ‘raptured’ students. ;)) But those who aren’t smart or disciplined enough, have behavior problems or handicaps that interfere with their learning, will be ‘left behind’ in a public school system that has less money than it did.

For structural reasons, I don’t think there will be a sudden expansion of private school resources - under any vouchers plan - to accomodate large numbers or public school children. Instead, a few will be saved, and most will be left worse off than before. But if private schools are required to compete with public schools on an even basis, then IMO, almost no private schools will agree to be recipients of vouchers, and so the whole idea of vouchers will have been exposed as a monumental bluff.

That’s my opinion; the floor is open for yours! :slight_smile:

I say let’s move the public schools in the direction of private schools, instead of the other way around.

Furthermore, the public schools will possibly be left with less money under a voucher scheme, but they’ll also have fewer students, and need less. It may be true that they would need more money per student - it would be true if they are left with the worst students as you suggest. But the amount of voucher money could be adjusted accordingly.

Nothing that you say sounds like an even remotely insurmountable obstacle. So why not try to find a workable voucher plan, instead of knee-jerk opposition to all voucher plans (I mean liberals generally - not you specifically)? Is it possibly connected with a liberal love of big government? Or the influence of the teachers union?

[Note: as a future public school teacher, I am walking into this debate with a bias.]

There are lots of problems with vouchers, and the arguments that RTF posted are a good beginning.

Public schools must provide an education to all children, including children with severe mental, emotional, and physical handicaps, children of illegal immigrants, and children with long histories of disruptive and possibly dangerous behavior. This is a good thing. All children deserve an education, and if the nation wishes to succeed on any level, it is obligated to provide that education.

Private schools are just that, private, and have the ability to pick and choose what students they will admit. It is unrealistic to think that the government can dictate admission terms through vouchers. If a private school cannot decide for itself which students it will take, it will either close down or refuse to accept government vouchers.

The per capita spending on education averages in California in 1997 was almost $6,000 per student [cite: California Budget Project]. This was a big selling point for voucher advocates; the vouchers would only be for $4,000, so the more students that left the public school system for private school, the more money the state saved. However, that amount is an average. The state spends a great deal more per student on handicapped, ESL, and economically disadvantaged students to provide them with an education. Should vouchers be made available, those are the last students that would make it into the private schools, and they would drive up the average per student cost tremendously. The public school system doesn’t become more competitive with vouchers. It loses money, resources, and the very students that make it look successful.

Even if my sympathies were not for the public school system, I would argue against vouchers for the following two reasons:

  1. They don’t help the people they’re intended to.

In California, the voucher proposition would have awarded $4,000 per year for each student who was educated outside the public school system. When it comes to private education, $4,000 means diddly. The student must provide for tuition, books, clothes, and transportation. Most private schools charge well in excess of $4,000 for tuition. A student in a poor family would probably never be able to come up with the rest of the money. They would remain as shut out from private school as ever. The cost of making private school affordable to them would bankrupt education.

  1. Vouchers violate the First Amendment.

Government money should not be given to religious enterprises, and that includes private religious schools. The reasons are two-fold: government should not fund religion, and religion should not be held captive to government. Once we start spending money on private schools, we will start dictating to them what and how they will teach. It is simply human nature. Once religious schools figure that out, they will refuse to take government money, and we’re back where we started.

There are problems with public educations - tons and tons of problems. However, the answer doesn’t lie in shipping off some of the students. It lies in fixing those problems.


What does it matter if private schools have some advantages that public schools do not? The idea behind public education is the ensure that all get an education, correct? Well people with vouchers will still be getting and education. I don’t see what the problem is.


The only requirement should be education related. A private school student must be able to pass the same standardized test that all the public school kids have to pass.


I don’t think it’ll improve the most disadvantaged students. But then not every plan has to target the most disadvantaged folks in our society. What students do you think might get left behind? I don’t see a great exodus to private schools coming any time soon.


If the public school has less students then it stands to reason they need less money. If public school is so great why do you refer to those who would stay as being “left behind?” Am I missing something here? I’m not attacking public education here but your stance confuses me.


What exactly do you mean, Izzy? Should public schools be able to set admission standards, refuse to take students with learning disabilities, and so forth?

If you adjust for (a) the differential cost between teaching the ‘normal’ students and teaching the difficult ones, the learning-disabled, etc., and (b) the fact that as a school’s population drops, each remaining student’s ‘share’ of the school’s fixed costs increases, then as far as I can tell, that problem’s fixed. I suppose we’ll see if the Bush Administration’s number-crunchers thought of these things.

I have no problem with vouchers, in principle. The problems, IMO, really are in the practical aspects. Like everyone else, I know that while our educational system is working well enough that it’s done its bit in the creation of a gangbusters high-tech economy, it’s also leaving many people behind. Where the system’s breaking down, and how to fix it, are questions I don’t claim to have a full grasp of. My liberal heart would love to see a solution to that problem, no matter what its origin.

I’m skeptical of vouchers for a number of reasons, but mostly that, as phouka points out indirectly, a good deal of the motivation for vouchers has come from parents who already send their kids to private schools, and would like the school district to pick up some of the tab. Vouchers weren’t designed to help inner-city kids, and the mechanism by which they will work for more than a handful of those kids is less than obvious to me.

I want to see how a vouchers program really isn’t a 21st-century snake-oil. But a solution that doesn’t seem to rely on any knowledge of exactly how the schools are failing us, and where the breakdowns are, certainly appears to share features with snake oil. Which is why I consider the burden to be on voucher advocates to show that they would indeed help the most disadvantaged of our students.

The problem with the whole voucher scam is that the public school population stays the same, while the money available to them decreases. The 4 grand or so isn’t enough to make the differance on what school your child attends, so the people who are in public school now, would still be their afterward. The poeple who can afford private school will get thier vouchers, but thier students wernt going to public schools anyway. So now we have the same number of students in public school, only less money to teach them with.

I would be in favor of voucher if you pass a law saying that private schools have to take anyone, first come/first serve, and are required to take the student for the amount of the voucher. It’ll never happen

The problem is, you may be creating a program that is de facto restricted to only a handful of the people that it is meant to serve - and that those who aren’t able to get into private schools will actually receive a worse education than before.

And this safeguards kids presently in the public schools how?

Just FYI, this is how Dubya is selling the program.

Exactly. Almost all of them.

Who says all public schools are doing a great job? It’s generally agreed that many are not; the question is what to do about it. Dubya’s plan is being sold as a solution to the problems of the worst schools. Obviously, being left behind in what was one of the worst schools to begin with, and that now would have less money than before, is not a good thing.


Whether it does or does not isn’t relevant. You wanted to know what requirements private schools who accept vouchers should have.


That’s ok. Bush isn’t the only proponent of school vouchers.


I’m confused. Does this mean you think everyone in public school will be left behind?

I think it is one avenue. Let’s face it if you’re living in a crappy school district you don’t have many options as a parent other then move. Another solution I liked was sending your kid to a nearby district and letting that district get the education dollars. I’m not quite sure how it’d all work out but it would make some districts compete a bit.


Disclaimer: I despise almost every private school voucher sytstem that has been proposed or enacted. Their primary effect, it seems to me, is to give fat government welfare checks to the well-off parents who already send their kids to private schools. Few if any of the private school voucher systems provide sufficient funds for a financially-strapped parent (i.e., those parents whose kids are most likely to be stuck in a lousy public school) to enroll their kids in a private school. The cost of tuition is just too high in most decent private schools, even with the voucher money.

However, I was at one time familiar with the voucher system used in Milwaukee, which is widely considered a model program for vouchers. And at least as of a couple years ago, my recollection is that any private schools that decided to accept vouchers were required to accept any student who wished to enroll, assuming there was room for them to enroll. (Some schools declined to participate for precisely that reason.) In this regard, some of the OP’s concerns have already been dealt with, although I do not know whether Bush’s federal proposal includes similar requirements.

My problem with most voucher proposals is that I don’t think they’ll make anything better – and they may make things much worse.

To wit: Let’s say Peopleville suddenly decided to go vouchers, in a big way. Every student gets a voucher for $X, which they can use for either the public or private school of their choice, and a school that accepts Y students gets $X * Y from the Peopleville goveernment.

So what happens? Every parent identifies what the best/most prestigeous school is, and submits an application there. With limited capacity, the school accepts only the best and the brightest (or the richest and the whitest, or whatever cynical criteria you want to use), and turns away the rest. The parents of the rejected students then submit their applications to the next-best school, and the process repeats.

When the dust settles, you end up with an A+++ school with all the best students, an A++ school with all the second-best students … so on down the line, with all the “trouble students,” rejects, learning-disabled kids, and what-have-you stuck at the bottom of the pool, jammed in a last-choice school. Peopleville’s students aren’t better off as a result – and the “problem” students might even be worse off as a result.

(And this doesn’t even cover the issue of whether or not $X per student is even sufficient, or [more likely] parents will have to make up the difference from their own pockets)

And that’s why I think school vouchers are a crummy idea, snake oil peddled by well-monied politicians, trying to benefit rich, upper-class parents (whose kids are already in private schools) at the expense of everyone else.

Besides, the idealistic notion that “the free market solves all problems” should be roundly deflated by now, given California’s “deregulated energy” fiasco…

Also, Bush’s program only makes vouchers available to parents who’s children are currently in a public school, and that school has to show a three-year record of failing to meet standards. This eliminates the ‘welfare to people who already have their kids in private schools’ aspect.

I think the primary purpose of Bush’s voucher program is to act as a big hammer against schools that are unable or refuse to improve. Hopefully, a school in its second year of failure will realize that it must shape up in the next year or risk a flight of students.

Thanks for the info on Bush’s plan limiting vouchers to those who are already in failing public schools, Sam.

One bit of info I just picked up from the evening news: Bush’s vouchers are only $1500 apiece. Totally inadequate if you’re really trying to enable poverty-stricken parents to get their kids into private schools.

This is better than most of the proposals I’ve seen which will not even save money because the children who are currently in private schools will also get vouchers. However, I see some problems-
1}Parochial schools around here are not terribly expensive (from about $1900 for one child to under $5000 for 4 or more), so a fair amount of low-income people work two jobs and scrimp to be able to afford parochial school.It doesn’t strike me as fair to give low-income Joe,whose kids are now in a poorly performing public school a voucher,while not helping his neighbor Jack, who gave up things Joe enjoys, to keep his children out of the school to begin with.
2) What about the children who haven’t started school yet?Do they automatically get a voucher if the public school they would attend fits the qualifications or do they have to go to the failing school for some period of time first?
The other problem I have with voucher systems is the idea that suddenly quality private schools are going to spring up.Even if that did happen, I expect that if there are 500 new jobs for teachers and administrators because of new schools opening, many of those jobs will be filled by those who used to work in public schools.If they can provide a quality education in a private school, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to in a public school (perhaps run in a different manner than they currently are) If they are just incompetent, they’ll also be incompetent in the private schools.

There’s another aspect to this that was covered in the 1800s, in the public-vs-private education debates that raged then:

Placing schools with strict entrance requirements, even ignoring the potential for economic and ethnic discrimination, upon the same level as public education causes (and even encourages) the most dedicated students, the most helpful parents, to go into that private education.

This means less help and less devotion for the public schools. Performance falls, causing more people to shift to private education, causing even less support for public schools, causing performance to fall, causing more people to shift, and on, and on. Let’s not encourage that spiral.

I’m opposed to private education itself, and thus the entire root concept of vouchers as well as their implementation. Public schooling is currently the ONLY (read that: ONLY) place that Americans are really ever exposed to the full breadth of our society. Everywhere else, be it their adult life, or their childhood dominated by adults, they’re able to shelter themselves in their own parochial niche, but in public schools you’re forced to deal with American culture in all its force, for better or for worse, in addition to achieving a uniform basic level of education that can then be expected of the ENTIRE population.

When public schools don’t get the job done (and many don’t, and in some parts of the country, they never have), it’s our job to see to it that they’re IMPROVED. We have to support public schooling to see long-term benefits. Retreating off into private schools, especially as sheltered bastions of the rich and the religious nutcases, only adds to the ignorance of the culture of people living in their own country.

If I had my way, there would -be- no private schools. You can damn well bet that public schools would get swift encouragement to provide better education with better facilities and a safer environment when little Leonard Moneybags III is sitting at the desk between Fresh Cube and Joe-Bob. Public education is not a lost cause, and abandoning it will solve nothing. Sure, it might be better for your kid for a couple years (nothing that a little parental help won’t fix), but in the long term, running away from the problem will just cause BIGGER problems for the whole society farther down the line.

I send my son to a private school. I (and other parents like me) am not rich like some previous posters beleive or argue. I make sacrafices so my son does not have to go to the haunted house in my district that some call a school. I pay taxes, the schools suck, I deserve a voucher. Its not a choice when you live in a school district like I live in.

I pray that I am in a strong enough financial situation by the time my kids hit school age that I can put them in a private school. My stepdaughter goes to a magnet school, which should be better than the average public school, and I am not happy at all with the level of education she is getting. When I was in kindergarden, every student could read by the time they finished kindergarden. My stepdaughter still doesn’t know her letters - she can sing the alphabet, but she can’t name 3/4 of the letters. They ARE teaching her Spanish, but not really - she comes home and says ‘you are rojas and Mommy is azul’, when I asked her what those words meant she had no idea they were colors…she just thinks saying Spanish words is knowing Spanish, even if she has no idea what they mean.

I try to take the time to teach her what her school isn’t, but it’s hard to hold her attention for long, and she doesn’t take to correction well at all, when you ask her what a letter is and she is wrong, she will argue when you tell her what it really is, or change the subject. I can’t really think of anything she has learned in her 4 months in kindergarden, and she’s not a dumb child.

Sorry Batz but I can’t understand why you think a 5 year old needs to be able to read! Kindergarten is a year for orientation, especially social. I’m 42 years old and there was no such thing as kindergarten in public education when I was 5. I went to a private school then but that is beside the point. Perhaps your daughter is giving you a clue. She’s uncooperative about learning to read because she’s too damned young! Give her this year in kindergarten to learn how to share, follow directions, line up, and keep her little body still for more than 5 minutes. What did you think she was going to do come home and cook up a cure for AIDS on her Barbie stove?


Well, this sums up the pro-“school choice” movement pretty nicely.

Unfortunately, I (like many other Americans including single people, couples without children and the elderly) already pay taxes to support public education. We don’t want to be double-taxed to finance a huge new federal entitlement program. And if you think public school spending is going to magically fade away under competition from private education, you’re about as naive as the primeval Marxists who thought the state would wither away in the new workers’ paradises. We’ll still be paying for a huge public school administrative framework to support a smaller student body.

Voucher plans are really an “I want mine” welfare program which no fiscally responsible conservative should tolerate. It’s continually amazing that anyone thinks subsidizing religious schools is tolerable under the First Amendment.

If you want better public schools, you need to pitch in and work for them.

Isn’t there some choice involved in living in that school district? Isn’t that school district still going to be there if your child leaves it to go to a private school? Won’t it still suck? Or will every single child be able to leave the school for a private school? If they do, won’t the private school now be faced with the same problems (especially overcrowding) that your public school faces?

It’s been mentioned that many private schools are also religious schools. Which raises the question, what if there are no schools in your area which teach your religion? How many Muslim or Bhuddist private schools are there in this country? Or is one of the side affects of this plan to try and deny a decent education to religious minorities?

It should also be noted that many (perhaps a majority, but I don’t have a cite to back it up) private schools are run by the Catholic church. It’s odd that people think public schools can be made competitive with one of the wealthiest organizations in the world by taking money away from them.

Jackmanni, its funny you should compare vouchers with a “I want mine” welfare attitude. You don’t have to pay taxes to collect welfare, I on the other hand pay into the system. I pay FICA and unemployment so that if I ever need it its there. So why can’t I get a voucher or atleast be able to deduct it on my fed. tax return (you can with child care). I do agree with you that the schools will never improove wthout parental involvement. Throwing money at the problem will never solve it.

Toubot, maybe you would choose to move away, leave your home and just give up but thats not me. The fight for vouchers just isn’t about money, its about quality education. In the past parents had a choice of whether to send their children to public or private schools. Now the condition of some public schools takes that choice away. You can send your child to a haunted house and call it a choice, I will not. I believe that if in your district the public school is up to par, then if you choose to send your child to a private school thats your choice and you should pay and receive no voucher or assistance of any kind.