School Choice: Vouchers and Tax-Credit Scholarships Don’t Pay


A few weeks ago, I wrote about the many options parents have when choosing a school for their child. While I absolutely support parents’ rights to educate themselves about their options and to choose a school that matches their family’s philosophical and educational needs, I do not support school vouchers or similar programs.

School voucher systems give parents subsidies that can be directed towards the school of their choice, whether that school is a public, parochial, or independent school; in some jurisdictions, the subsidy can even be applied towards homeschooling. Currently, thirteen states and the District of Columbia have some sort of voucher program, although eligibility varies by state.

Fourteen states, including Rhode Island, offer tax-credit scholarships. Through these programs, businesses (and in some cases, individuals) donate to a scholarship granting organization (SGO), and in return they receive a tax credit. Eligible (low-income) families may then apply for a scholarship to be used towards tuition at a private or parochial school. There is generally a cap on the tax credit and the number of students participating in the program.

Proponents of voucher programs believe that when Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), it should include taxpayer-funded scholarships that parents can use to send their children to the school of their choice. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea; why wouldn’t we want parents to be able to direct their tax dollars to the school that educates their children? But there are several good reasons why vouchers and tax credits will not strengthen our education system.

There is no evidence that students who receive vouchers perform any better in school. A report released in 2011 found that, over the course of a decade, vouchers had no positive effect on student academic achievement (based on the results of reading and math assessments). In other words, students receiving vouchers performed at about the same level as their public school peers who stayed in their assigned schools.

Voucher programs divert much-needed funding away from public schools, particularly schools serving low-income populations. The money directed towards voucher programs generally is siphoned away from Title I, a program which allocates funds to schools based on economic need. Schools with the most need will likely lose the most funding; and the students who are left in those schools will have even fewer resources than they already do.

Both vouchers and tax-credit scholarships weaken our public school system. According to the Southern Education Foundation, over the last year, over $1 billion in tax funding went to private organizations and private schools through these programs. That’s $1 billion that has come directly out of our public school budget, to provide additional teachers, support staff (such as college counselors), arts programs, and materials and supplies. At the same time that our low-income student population is growing, our public schools are losing the funding they need to adequately serve their students.

Vouchers and tax-credit scholarships will not have any effect on the achievement gap. While private schools can choose to accept or deny admission to student applicants, public schools serve all of the students who enroll, regardless of their academic ability, language skills, or special needs. Diverting funds that are desperately needed by public schools that serve an increasingly diverse student body will not help us close the achievement gap; it will only hinder their ability to help their students attain success.

Many states will continue to offer these programs promoting school choice, as their advocates argue that allowing parents to choose alternative schools for their children will build competition and force underperforming public schools to either improve or close. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of this outcome. For this reason, our federal government should not encourage voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs, and they should not be written into the reauthorization of the ESEA.

A strong public school system benefits all of us, regardless of whether we have children attending the public schools – and our taxes should support those schools. Like charter schools, vouchers and tax-credit scholarship programs are an attempt to appease voting and taxpaying parents by offering them alternatives. Instead, we should be using this funding to strengthen all of our public schools.

As author John Green writes, “We have discovered as a species that it is useful to have an educated population. You do not need to be a student or have a child who is a student to benefit from public education. Every second of every day of your life, you benefit from public education. So let me explain why I like to pay taxes for schools, even though I don’t personally have a kid in school; it’s because I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.”

This post also appeared at GoLocalProv.

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