Vouchers Don’t Work

Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite things: policy details, econometric studies, and Milton Friedman. Stay with me.

I’ll admit, I had mixed feelings about school vouchers for a while. I certainly didn’t support the kind of voucher that is being promoted by the current administration, where all students, instead of automatically being enrolled in public school, will receive a voucher that can either be used at a public or private school. It seems fairly obvious to me that this kind of voucher would do nothing but suck money out of the public school system as wealthier families can afford to attend private schools, while less wealthy families would almost certainly be locked out of these schools by a still-prohibitive income barrier. As noted by the New York Times, “The free market often does a terrible job of providing basic services to the poor.” However, I was optimistic about the idea of targeted vouchers, where students at the lower end of the income spectrum would get additional assistance affording private school. I figured that this kind of voucher may work well.

However, the article linked above, in the New York Times, reports on new research that all kind of voucher programs don’t appear to be working to boost student achievement. The free market argument, first advanced by Milton Friedman, is that competition would improve school systems by allowing students to reward good schools and punish bad schools. Bad schools wouldn’t attract enough students to be financially viable, and they would be forced to close as a result, leaving only the best-performing schools open, which would then compete among themselves on the market and be forced to continue getting better.

It’s a nice dream, but it doesn’t look like this is the way it works with voucher systems. What voucher systems end up doing, unfortunately, is take the limited public funds available for education and dilute them even further by spreading them around. So, public schools get worse because they have even less money for their basic operations, but the private schools don’t really get any better. There simply isn’t enough money to be spreading it around even further. Many private schools fold altogether, but those that do manage to be profitable do so because they’re bankrolled by millionaires and billionaires. The majority of private schools that benefit from vouchers just can’t match public schools, because the lack of oversight unsurprisingly leads to less rigorous instruction.

If you ask me what I think should be done to improve schools, I think charter schools are a good way to encourage innovation in public schools without losing the oversight and accountability that are so necessary for the education system to do its job. I think that public funds should be kept where they belong, in public schools, and that we should be focusing on how to improve the public school system rather than demolish it. If private schools can’t match up to public schools even with vouchers, that is clear evidence that voucher systems would put us on the wrong track.

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