These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Private School Vouchers, What’s The Point?

Last month, I had the pleasure of participating in a debate on private school vouchers in Chicago. The state of Illinois recently made a $100 million dollar bet to improve the educational outcomes for low-income students by establishing a tax credit scholarship program, that acts like a voucher, for low-income families to attend a private school of their choice.

I was there to argue against the use of public funds for private school vouchers. I find these programs to be neither a strategy to improve public education, as many proponents claim, nor a recipe for destroying public education, as many of the opponents claim. I find these programs to be mostly a distraction from doing the really hard work of improving our public schools.

It was great to be in Chicago at this debate forum hosted by Empower Illinois high up in the Sears (Willis) facilitated by the local public affairs host for the Chicago PBS station.  Aside from the views from the Metropolitan club, the best part of the experience was being part of a forum that was respectful of all points of view with a fact-based discussion, a rare thing these days, on education or any other policy. Kudos to Empower for having a debate on the merits of their program, an even more rare thing these days.  

You can hear the entire forum here.

During the debate, I took the position against vouchers or tax credits for private schools, not because I don’t believe in school choice but primarily because it does not have a significant impact on those who have received vouchers, or more importantly, on the public education system.  

Here are my top 8 reasons for why I don’t support privately funded vouchers.

  1. Little or no evidence that vouchers have a significant impact on voucher participant education outcomes.
  2. Zero evidence that vouchers/tax-credits improve public education student outcomes for those that don’t participate.  Public schools do not get better, nor do they seem to get much worse.
  3. There are far better uses of funding to drive improvement of educational outcomes for students, e.g. early education, high performing charters, targeted teacher pay increases, etc.
  4. Vouchers are mostly a distraction from doing the hard work of improving public education.
  5. Public funds should not subsidize religious preK-12 schools.
  6. Private schools can discriminate on admissions for a variety of reasons, they are not designed to serve all students, e.g. LGBTQ, Special Education, etc.
  7. Private voucher schools have even less accountability for student outcomes than public schools.
  8. Public discussions of private school voucher/tax-credit are mostly driven by ideology not evidence tied to their purpose.

While I don’t think vouchers are a great public education investment, I feel strongly that if a community chooses to have a voucher program they should have one. Florida, Illinois, and Indiana have the right to spend their public education dollars as they see fit, I just want to make sure that policy makers know what private school vouchers will and will not do. If policy makers want to give low income families scholarships to attend private and religious schools, that’s their prerogative.

The evidence suggests that Illinois program will not have a significant impact on improving educational outcomes. Given this, and I am assuming the overall objective to improve educational outcomes for at least the participants, how should a state spend $100 million? And is a private school voucher the best use of $100 million? I personally don’t think so.

There are now a large variety of tax-credit/voucher programs, many running for a fairly long time like Florida and Wisconsin’s programs. And by the way, while I know a tax credit is a different mechanism than a “voucher,” it has the same impact in terms of redirecting tax dollars to private schools that would otherwise be going to another government investment.  Depending on the particular research study, some seem to have a slight positive impact on those using the vouchers or scholarships while others seem to have a slight negative impact.   

My opponent, Derrell Bradford a far more charming and compelling guy than me, made a great argument built around fairness and family agency.  Why should the rich get to choose the school of their choice while the poor are often confined to their neighborhood school which may not be the best option?  

I really can’t argue against Derrell’s main point on equity. I generally agree with him about the need for far more quality school choices in most places (not interested in more low-quality school choice). We know different kids need different learning environments. We also know there is a huge range in quality of classrooms and schools. The question is: what should the options be if my tax dollars are supporting the school? And what information do families get about the schools that they can choose from?  

Publicly funded schools should be open to all students regardless of their circumstances or orientations. Publicly funded schools should be public and accountable for student achievement. Schools should NOT be able to discriminate on student ability, needs or sexual orientation, race or income. I also have the same concerns about publicly funded preschools.  And last, publicly funded preK-12 schools should not be able to push a particular religious’ ideology or viewpoint. Public schools should be open to all, support all students to be prepared for college, work and life while being a means for students to learn how to work with others, with different backgrounds, and to thrive in our ever more diverse communities.

Private school vouchers are mostly a distraction from the need to dramatically improve public education. Most students in our large cities are not leaving school prepared for college, jobs or life, and vouchers will do little to change this situation. We need far better schools focused on preparing all students for today’s world. Let’s do that work.