Pro: It frees students from their zip code
One of the worst features of the public school system is the way it chains students to particular schools based on where they live. This means that children in low-income, high-violence neighborhoods get educated in low-income, high-violence schools, which offers them little chance of escaping to bigger and better things. The DC voucher program allows low-income students to opt out of failing and dangerous schools, in favor of private schools or other forms of education that actually give them the opportunity for success.
Con: It redistributes wealth
Unfortunately, the way this voucher program works is by giving federal tax dollars to low-income families to allow them to pay the tuition for private schools. It’s hard to say how much of the funding is merely a refund for the amount families pay in local taxes that support public schools, but given that the money is coming from the federal coffers, not local ones, it is certain that there is at least some redistribution of wealth going on. In other words, some people are being forced to pay for other people’s education choices, and some taxpayers will be forced to pay for private school tuition when they may not agree with what those schools teach. While it is true that this is the case with public schools in general — even without the voucher program — the program doesn’t improve the situation for taxpayers, and it may actually worsen it.
Pro: It gives parents more control over curriculum and methods
When your child is forced into a public school, the school’s curriculum is imposed on them whether you like it or not. As we’ve seen in the case of Common Core standards, this can mean everything from unsolvable math problems to biased and incorrect history texts, some of which may run directly counter to the values parents wish to instill in their children. Vouchers allow parents to choose a school that teaches in a way that works for their children, including content that harmonizes with their core beliefs. The state losing the ability to ram government propaganda down the throats of low-income children is worth a lot.
Con: It gives government more control over private schools
On the other hand, a problem with vouchers in general is that they introduce government funding to private institutions, and as the proverb teaches, he who pays the piper calls the tune. Government already has the ability to dictate what is taught in public schools. With vouchers, government can define what constitutes a “qualified” school eligible for funding. For example, if government decides that the teaching of intelligent design disqualifies a school for participation in the voucher program, these schools will be put at a huge disadvantage compared to those that comply with government requirements. This is not to say that I advocate the teaching of intelligent design, but simply to make the point that when government controls funding to private institutions strings are invariably attached. Before long, everyone will fall in line with “official” federal teachings.
Ultimately, individuals need to be able to choose the type of schooling, if any, that works for them.
Pro: Competition makes everything better
The best thing about vouchers is it forces schools to earn their students. An inner city school ruled by chaos and violence generally has a built-in customer base legally required to attend it. With vouchers, such schools will empty out, and funding will be diverted to more successful schools. Like in every other market, the failures will be weeded out, and the successes will be rewarded. Consequently, the overall quality level of schools should improve. Competition makes everything better, and education is no exception to that rule.
Con: Federal involvement makes everything worse
The D.C. voucher program is unique in that it is the only federally funded such system in the country. But federal involvement in education has never produced results before, and there’s no reason to believe that will change. The U.S. Department of Education was founded a little less than 40 years ago, and in that time has frittered away billions of dollars with no positive effects to show for it. Where the department has made a difference, it has only made things worse. One thing is clear: Education reform needs to happen is at the state and local level. The federal government is simply not in the position to do anything useful.
Solution: Repeal mandates and let people choose
Vouchers are probably an improvement over the immediate alternative, but they are far from the ideal solution to America’s education woes. Still, choice and competition remain watchwords for quality and liberty, and the spirit of vouchers, if not the mechanics, remain true to those ideals. A better option would be to get the federal government out of schools entirely, make control as local as possible, and remove mandates, both on the curricula and methods of schools and on the students themselves. Compulsory schooling is an anachronism in an age when all of the world’s knowledge is available online with the click of a button.
Ultimately, individuals need to be able to choose the type of schooling, if any, that works for them. The government should never have a say.
Logan Albright is a researcher for Conservative Review and Director of Research for Free the People. You can follow him on Twitter @loganalbright73.