Are school vouchers threatening once again?

In a 2007 public vote, Utah citizens made it clear: they did not want vouchers for private schools to be a part of Utah’s education system.  

The vote was overwhelming:  voting against vouchers, 309,528 (62.2%); voting for vouchers 188,123 (37.8%).  (State of Utah Elections Office, 2007)

Now, a decade later, while Utah’s opposition to the widespread implementation of vouchers remains unchanged, tremors throughout the nation are cause for concern. 

  • Nationally, the Trump Administration has proposed a $20 billion package for “school choice” initiatives.  (Steven Rosenfeld, Alternet, reprinted in Salon, April 14, 2017)
  • Betsy DeVos, who President Trump selected his Secretary of Education, played a major role in introducing voucher initiatives in Detroit and in her recent visit to Utah continued to advocate strongly for them.  (Jason Blakely, “How School Choice Turns Education Into a Commodity,” The Atlantic, April 17, 2017; Benjamin Wood, “Education secretary touts choice of schools, innovation,” Salt Lake Tribune, May 10, 2017)
  • Neighboring state Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, recently signed “one of the broadest voucher programs in the nation” into law.  (Bob Christie, “Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signs voucher bill,” The State, April 7, 2017)  
  • Local advocates are agitating once again.  While writing this column, I opened my community newspaper, and discovered an op-ed written by a representative of a conservative Utah “think-tank” urging Utah to move to vouchers.  (Christine Cook, Sutherland Institute, “It is time for Utah to offer true educational choice,” Davis County Clipper, April 20, 2017)

For the sake of all Utah children, I strongly believe Utah should continue to resist any further movement toward school vouchers.  Before identifying some reasons to oppose institution of vouchers, some terms will be defined.  Then, I will suggest four reasons for my opposition:

  • Vouchers do not improve the quality of education for most students.
  • Vouchers will lead to the deterioration of our public school system.
  • Vouchers violate the principle of separation of church and state.
  • Vouchers will further encourage division of our society into classes.

Definition of vouchers and some voucher related concepts

Discussing the idea of school vouchers is complex.  Advocates and opponents frequently use different words and the words selected are sometimes chosen more for the emotions evoked than to convey clear meanings.

One major supporter of vouchers speaks of “types of school choice” insisting “there are more than you might think.”  They identify 13 different categories.   (The Friedman Foundation, “Types of School Choice,” web page, 2017 EdChoice, accessed April 24, 2017)  These range from “open enrollment” (a practice available in Utah which allows a student who lives in one geographical area to attend a public school in a differing area) to other schemes which provide public money to a student to attend private schools. 

Commonly used words include:

Public education:   Schools operate publicly, are open to all students, and are funded by taxes.

Private education:  Schools operate privately, are selective in whom they allow to attend, and until the introduction of voucher schemes are funded privately — usually by donations or tuition.

School choice:  A vague term which refers to any system where a student has options for education choosing between private, public, charter, and home schools and including options within those categories.

Vouchers:  Government funding for a student to attend any school, usually private schools.  In some localities, the funding may even pay for home schooling.  

Charter schools:   These schools are operated privately, but funded publicly.  In some instances (Utah, for example) charter schools are required to follow certain minimal state requirements and, although preference may be given to some students, should be open to all applicants.  To that extent they are considered a public school.

Education tax credits:  This term can be used in one of two ways:  1) a tax credit given to an individual taxpayer to be used to pay for education expenses of their children; 2) a tax credit given to a taxpayer who donates money to a non-profit organization for private school scholarships.

Other terms include education savings accounts, magnet schools, open enrollment, and more.  The range is extensive.  My opposition to some forms is strong while some is non-existent.  When opportunities for choice exist within the public schools, I generally applaud the concept; however, when public money is used for private purposes, I am very apprehensive and opposed.

Reasons why I believe “vouchers” should not be implemented and are not best for students

Vouchers do not improve the quality of education for most students

From the beginning, one of the supposed advantages proponents of school vouchers promoted is that the quality of education would be improved.  If that were true, it would be an impressive argument, but growing evidence suggests it “ain’t necessarily so.” 

Admittedly, the education of certain privileged students may be improved if they go to a private school, but such claims ignore the most important question:  what is best for moststudents?   (No one is suggesting that the right of parents to send their child to a private school should be limited; the question is whether public money should be used to do so.)

Recent evidence is ambivalent and suggests little or no significant, even negative, change when vouchers are implemented.

  • “…Studies on vouchers have reported mixed results on scores.  Scores improved for some students in some places, and scores did not improve for other students in other places.” (Mark Dybnarski, “On negative effects of vouchers,”Brookings, May 26, 2016)
  • “There’s no evidence that voucher program significantly increase test scores….”  (Carrie Spector, citing a new study by Martin Carnoy, Stanford Graduate School of Education “Vouchers do not improve student achievement, Stanford research finds,”  Stanford News, February 28, 2017)
  • “Research on the academic impact of vouchers…is decidedly mixed; there is no scholarly consensus that they boost student achievement.”  (David Trilling, Harvard Kennedy School, “School vouchers and student achievement: Reviewing the research,”  September 14, 2016)

Studies in specific locations where  vouchers have been implemented demonstrate the problem:

  • “Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schoolsscored lower compared to similar student who did not attend private schools.  (Dybnarski)
  • “Students who used vouchers to attend Louisiana private schools earned significantly lower scores in math, reading ability, science and social studies after one year.”   (Abdulkadiroglu, Atila; Pathak, Parag A.; Walters, Christopher R., “School Vouchers and Student Achievement: Evidence from the Louisiana Scholarship Program,” 2016, reported in Trilling)
  • “The evidence showed no differences in scores for Milwaukee students in reading, for Hispanic students in New York City in reading and math, and for DC students in math.”  (Dybnarski)
  • A new study released April 27 by U.S. Department of Education of Washington D. C. schools showed that voucher students “performed worse on standardized tests within a year after enter D. C. private schools than peers who did not participate….Significantly lower math scores [were reported] a year after joining” the voucher program.  “For voucher student in kindergarten through 5th grade, reading scores were also significantly lower.”  (Emma Brown and Mandy McLaren, “Nation’s only federally funded voucher program has negative effect on student achievement, study finds,: The Washington Post, April 27, 2017)
  • Test score data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report “Among black eighth-graders in 13 urban school districts, Milwaukee—where black student make up more than 70 percent of all voucher recipients—ranked last in reading and second-to-last in math.”  (Dybnarski)

A quarter century ago, I was invited by voucher advocates to “see first hand” the wonders of the new program in Milwaukee.  A full schedule of visits and showcases had been arranged.  I agreed to go, but arranged to extend my stay an extra day to visit other sample school not selected by the hosts.  As one might expect in the scheduled visits we saw some impressive examples.  Students seemed bright and eagerly involved in their learning.  On the final day where some us visited “other” sample school which we randomly selected the experience changed.  My vivid memory is of another voucher school where students wandered randomly in undirected “chaos.”  The truth I have come to expect of such school is that while some are indeed excellent, others are abysmally poor and taxpayer money appears to be thrown at misdirected waste.  

Time magazine summarized: “Promises of dramatic improvement [when vouchers are in operation] are not supported by the overall evidence.”  (Andrew J. Rotherham, “The 5 Biggest Myths About School Vouchers,” Time, February 17, 2011)

Reports regarding charter schools also suggest a similar finding:  “Numerous studies confirm that their [charter schools] achievement is indistinguishable from that of traditional public schools.  Some are very successful, some are troubled and struggling, and the rest are somewhere in between just like traditional public schools.”  (Grace Chen, “Charter Schools vs. Traditional Public Schools: Which One is Under-Performing?” Public School Review, February 27, 2017)

Within the last month a new report [Gordon Lafer, “Spending Blind: The Failure of Policy Planning in California Charter School Funding,”] in California is highly critical of California’s charter school system.  The report concludes that charter schools there “wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars by opening and building schools in communities that don’t need them and often end up doing worse than nearby public schools.”

Specifically the examination found that among California charter schools “public facilities funding has gone to schools that were found to have discriminatory enrollment policies and others that have engaged in unethical or corrupt practices.”   Investigators found “large numbers of shoddy schools in…unwarranted locations” and “for three-quarters of California charter schools,…the quality of education they offer is worse than that of a nearby traditional public school.”  (Steven Rosenfeld, Alternet, reprinted in Salon, April 14, 2017)

My own personal observation is that voucher schemes have little to do with achievement. I believe that improving student achievement has much more to do with quality of teachers and the socio-economic and family background of the students.

Vouchers will lead to the deterioration of our public school system

Another issue frequently debated is whether the establishment of voucher programs will be harmful to the public school system.  My investigation of the issue reveals proponents claim no harm but ignore the major concern of opponents.

A current website of the advocates concludes that no study “has found that school choice harms students in public schools.”  (Ed, accessed May 17, 2017)  The studies identified focus entirely on academic harm, and assuming that is true, it may simply demonstrate the tenacity of public schools in the near term to serve the children’s academic needs of students left behind.  But, that is, I believe, a different issue!

My examination focuses elsewhere: the harm to public schools will be in dramatic loss of revenue to meet continuing needs.   Such a loss may not result in immediate harm to public schools, but will—especially because of the unique demands expected of public schools in relationship to students with special needs–demonstrate significant long-term damage.

“Charter schools, vouchers, and other ‘choice’ options redirect public money…that harms public schools by siphoning off students, resources, and funding while reducing the ability of your public schools to serve the full range of student needs and interests.” (Carol Burris, “Do charters and vouchers hurt public schools? The answer is ‘yes’,” The Network for Public Education, January 23, 2017)   Burris refers to several studies to demonstrate dramatic financial impact.   In Nashville, Tennessee, “the net negative fiscal impact of charter school growth on the district’s public schools results in more than $300 million in direct costs to public schools over a five-year period.”  (MGT of America, “Charter School Financial Impact Model Final Report,” September 11, 2014)  In New York, “in just one academic year the Albany school district lost $23.6 – $26.1 million and the Buffalo district lost $57.3 – $76.8 million to charter schools.  Because charters in both districts had smaller percentages of limited English proficient students, and charters in Albany enrolled fewer students with disabilities, the affected public schools were unable to reduce spending on English as Second Language and special education services.”  (Robert Bifulco and Randall Reback, Columbia University,  “Fiscal Impacts of Charter Schools: Lessons from New York, New York, NY,” no date)

A Michigan study demonstrated the same phenomenon:  variation in district fiscal stress in that state was due to several factors including “enrollment changes including those associated with school choice policies, and to the enrollment  of high-cost, special education students.”   (Arsen, DeLuca, Ni, and Bates, “Which Districts Get Into Financial Trouble and Why: Michigan’s Story,”  November, 2015)

The Anti-Defamation League concluded, “…Public schools would be left with fewer dollars to teach the poorest of the poor and other students who, for one reason or another, were not able to attend or chose not to attend private schools. Such a scenario could seriously impair public education.”  (Anti-Defamation League, “School Vouchers: The Wrong Choice for Public Education,”  2012)

The challenge of financing the needs of “special needs” students is not the only factor which would contribute to financial harm to the public schools.   Schools “can’t simply cut fixed costs for things like transportation and physical plant proportionally. It also can’t cut the costs of grade-level teaching staff proportionally. That would increase class sizes and leave the remaining students underserved. So instead, the school cuts a program or support service – a reading specialist, a special education teacher, a librarian, an art or music teacher – to offset the loss of funding.” (Jeff Bryant, “Elizabeth Warren Clarifies The Charter Schools Debate,”  Our, September 30, 2016)

Another concern raised by opponents explains that because private schools often seek to save money by hiring young teachers, vouchers programs worsen “the teacher shortage” and diminish “teacher quality on average.”  (Carrie Spector, citing a new study by Martin Carnoy, Stanford Graduate School of Education “Vouchers do not improve student achievement, Stanford research finds,”  Stanford News, February 28, 2017)

In summary, I believe if we move to various “choice” programs like vouchers a devastatingly harmful financial impact will be felt in our public schools.   To me, it is an obvious consequence: funding two systems costs more than funding one adequately.  The “lucky few” will attend private schools but those left behind will be left with declining services and ultimately an inferior education.  

The real conversation needs to be how can we “adequately fund our public schools so that they can actually provide quality cost free education for all.” (Penn Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, “School Vouchers: Pros and Cons,” November 25, 2015)

Vouchers violate the principle of separation of church and state

Wisely, our founders created a government where no single religion is privileged over others.  If that were not so a “state religion” might be formed simply because a majority of citizens favor a particular religious code.   Freedom of religion would be in jeopardy. Adherents who believe in separation of church and state believe that when government money is allowed  to support one specific religion in preference to another we are moving to a highly dangerous “tyranny of the majority.”

Although not always quoted identically, Thomas Jefferson captured the essence of this fear:  “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”    (, retrieved May 2, 2017)  “Yet voucher programs would do just that; they would force citizens — Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists — to have their tax dollars pay for the religious indoctrination of school children at schools with narrow parochial agendas.”   (Anti-Defamation League)

I am not saying there is anything necessarily wrong with sending your child to a religious school, but voucher programs mandate states to fund that religious education.  In the Milwaukee voucher program, for instance, over 80% of the voucher schools are religious schools.   (Alan J. Borsuk, “Study finds results of MPS and voucher school students are similar,”  Journal Sentinel, March 26, 2009)

One way voucher supporters seek to get around this constitutionality argument is to give the money in the form of tuition tax credits to parents, not the schools.  Then the parents use the same money to pay for tuition at the religious school.  To me, this is very contrived way to circumvent the principle.

Various decisions in state courts and the Supreme Court have come to different conclusions about the constitutionality of vouchers depending on the writing of state constitutions and the particular program.  

  • The Nyquist decision of the U. S. Supreme Court “invalidated a New York parochaid program” in 1973 (Clint Bolick, “Are School Vouchers Constitutional?”  National Center for Policy Analysis, July 10, 1998)
  • Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002), was a five to four decision of the United States Supreme Court that tested the allowance ofschool vouchers in relation to the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.  A divided Court upheld an Ohio school voucher plan.  (Wikipedia, accessed May 3, 2017)
  • “The Colorado Supreme Court struck down a voucher program in the state’s third-largest school district Mondayfinding the program unconstitutional because it channels public funds to religious schools.” (Emma Brown,  Colorado Supreme Court strikes down school voucher program,” The Washington Post, June 29, 2015)
  • “In March, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld that state’s tax credit scholarship program as constitutional.”   (Brown)
  • A current case regarding whether playground coverings in a religious school can receive public funds may be decided this year in June.  InTrinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley the state of Missouri had denied funding to a church playground on the basis of a “no aid” provision.  (Tim Walker, “How a Supreme Court Ruling on Playground Covering May Pave the Way for School Vouchers,” NEA Today, March 9, 2017)  We are yet to see how the Supreme Court will rule.

Obviously, the issue is debatable.  For me, the separation of church and state issue is critical.  I do not believe scarce government funds designated for education should be divvied out to support someone’s personal religious choices.   This issue is also related to the larger issue in reason # 4.

Vouchers will further encourage division of our society into classes

To me, one of the most alarming characteristics of modern America is the increasing separation of our society into classes and groups.  The rich and privileged appear to becoming more rich and more privileged while the disadvantaged become more separated and more isolated.

“Nobody questions the fact that in recent decades, incomes in the upper middle class are rising relative to the rest of the distribution.  Families in the top quintile receive about half of overall income.”  (Richard V. Reeves, “The dangerous separation of the American upper middle class,” Brookings, September 3, 2015)

I believe in the value that drives individuals to “pull themselves up” and strive to succeed economically, but when the stratification of classes become too pronounced I think the “good” has become overwhelmed by the “evil.”  Although his conclusion seems exaggerated, I do not totally disagree with Salam’s forceful indictment:  “I’ve come to the conclusion that upper-middle-class Americans threaten to destroy everything that is best in our country.”  (Reihan Salam, “The Upper Middle Class Is Ruining America,” Slate, January 30, 2015)

I fear the voucher scheme would be one more step in this drive to extreme class stratification.  Research supports this fear.

“Data suggest…a strong risk that voucher programs will be used by white families to leave more diverse public schools for predominantly white private schools and by religious families to move to parochial private schools, increasing the separation of students by race/ethnicity and religious background.” (Halley Potter, “Do Private School Vouchers Pose a Threat to Integration?” The Century Foundation, March 21, 2017)

“…School vouchers have an inclination to bring students of the similar family background to certain kinds of schools.…The inclination…would destroy the cultural or philosophical diversity. And the diversity of the co-existence of different students in the same room is indeed a valuable treasure to education.”  (Youlu Shen, “School Voucher Program and Its Enlightenments to the Education Reform in China,” US-China Education Review, January 2005)

 “Implementation of voucher…programs sends a clear message that we are giving up on public education….The glory of the American system of public education is that it is for all children, regardless of their religion, their academic talents or their ability to pay a fee. This policy of inclusiveness has made public schools the backbone of American democracy.”   Unfortunately, most school voucher programs are not available for all; recipient schools discriminate on a variety of grounds: “some programs allow schools to reject applicants because of low academic achievement or discipline problems. Other programs permit participating schools to discriminate on the basis of disability, gender, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.” (Anti-Defamation League)

The experience of the last nearly four decades in Chile vividly demonstrates how vouchers increases class stratification and led to public unrest.

Between 1973 and 1990 an authoritarian military dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet came to power in Chile, replacing the government of Salvador Allende.  The Pinochet government implemented various right-wing policies, among them a universal voucher program in 1981.   The resultant change has been examined and “found to have exacerbated inequality, reduced public school enrollment” with “minimal  to no impact on student achievement.”

“A 2012 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reporthighlights Chile’s high-levels of socio-economic stratification between public and private schools. According to the report, 80 percent of the most-advantaged quarter of students attend a private school, while only 38 percent of the least-advantaged students attend these schools. Chile’s system has been closely studied by Chilean researchers who find that school vouchers have only served to increase, socio-economic segregation between schools. Researchers at the University of Chile and New York University found that children from families in the lowest income groups enroll in public schools at much higher rates than do children from the middle-class, who are more likely to use vouchers to enroll in private-subsidized schools.”  (Amaya Garcia, “Chile’s School Voucher System: Enabling Choice or Perpetuating Social Inequality?” New America, February 9, 2017)

“Chilean education offers inherently unequal opportunities for students from low-income families, who consistently experience sub-standard educational achievements as a result of an ongoing bias in favor of privatization measures. The government’s school voucher program has…exacerbated the socioeconomic divide between public and private institutions….”  (Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “The Failings of Chile’s Education System: Institutionalized Inequality and a Preference for the Affluent ,” July 30, 2008)

“In 2014, after more than 30 years of vouchers, it appears that Chile may be headed toward a seachange in their educational policy. For the past several years, student protests and strikes have objected to the inequality resulting from voucher policy. Recently, Chilean Education Minister Nicolás Eyzaguirre has indicated that President Michelle Bachelet’s administration will propose an overhaul of the educational system that will end vouchers for private schools.”   (Julian Vasquez Heilig, “Cloaking Inequity: New Research: Vouchers Increase Segregation and Offer Benefits to the Few,” National Educational Policy Center, July 18, 2014)

Because school vouchers do not appear to insure any educational improvement, would harm our nation’s remarkable public education system, are a violation of separation of church and state principles, and would increase class stratification I am firmly convinced that our state and country should not implement a voucher program.   To me, the better approach is to do everything in our power to improve one education system available toall United States children.