Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Choice/Against Vouchers

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What is the case against vouchers?

Vouchers are defined as “an entitlement extended to an individual by government permitting that individual to receive educational services up to the maximum dollar amount specified. The holder can normally redeem the voucher according to the preference at any institution or enterprise approved by the granting agency.”(Swanson and King, Good) School vouchers, also known as scholarships, redirect the flow of education funding, channeling it directly to individual families rather than to school districts. This allows families to select the public or private schools of their choice and have all or part of the tuition paid (Coulson).

Vouchers have been seen throughout history in various forms like the GI Bill, food stamps, and programs like Medicare and Medicaid.(Good) Milton Friedman is considered the “grandfather” of vouchers. He first proposed vouchers but was met with political opposition. At the time public views were pro government and over time that began to change as people became suspicious of government and the role of vouchers got backing by people. “Voucher plans were frequently discussed in the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s but they never became an actual point of policy.”(Good) In the 1980s consideration for school choice became policy when Ronald Reagan became President. Attempts failed, however, with a lack of congressional support, but because of the public attention, “it had become acceptable to talk about vouchers as public policy”(Good) and in some places became actual policy. Indeed the case of vouchers is a hot topic as some of the arguments against vouchers will be brought out.


The legal heart of the matter is whether the program violates the U.S. Constitution's "Establishment Clause" which mandates the separation of church and state and prohibits government endorsement of religion.(Miner) “Historically, public funds have not been allowed to support the cost of private education. Recent legislation and landmark court decisions have started to erode this historic barrier.”(Good) The Wisconsin Supreme Court case in June 1998 in Wisconsin ruled that the use of public funds to support private parochial schools was not unconstitutional because the court took the position that “the voucher money went to parents, not schools and thus its purpose with regard to religion, was neutral.”(Good) The United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case, letting the ruling stand. Similar cases happened in Cleveland. Opponents of Vouchers argue that Government run voucher programs that give these funds to private schools that teach religion is a violation of the separation of church and state. “Americans must ask themselves if they feel it is right for citizens to be forced to subsidize religious education which may conflict with their beliefs” (Coulman).


Vouchers are a way to provide opportunity for low-income students, in particular students of color. At the heart of the voucher movement, however, is a conservative agenda that seeks to privatize public education and funnel tax money into private schools, including religious schools. (Charney) The idea of privatization is to make schools part of the private sector and no longer government run. This was a part of Friedman’s plan. The argument is that government controlled schools are a monopoly and that if schools were to run themselves as consumer based, they would compete with each other for higher achievement. “It is argued that because schools are legislated as a basic monopoly, they have no external incentives to be competitive. Hence, choice advocates suggest that schools will improve only if market forces are applied.”(Good) However, Henry Levin notes that competition can result in what he calls “cream skimming, or the tendency of schools to choose students from more desirable backgrounds (less poor, higher prior achievement, etc.)” He goes on to say that there is concern that “they will fail to respond to the greater needs of disadvantaged and disabled students, and that they will lead to less expensive but not more effective education for poor children.”(Levin) Also most advocates of privatization, and competition in education “are not interested in public education per se, but are simply advocates of the private sector (i.e., they want to reduce the role of government in all aspects of society).”(Good) As Levin brings out, “it is not clear how much of this interest in finding answers to difficult questions and how much is simply directed at sustaining the debate.”(Levin) Milton Friedman himself, “dismissed the notion that vouchers could help low-income families, saying "it is essential that no conditions be attached to the acceptance of vouchers that interfere with the freedom of private enterprises to experiment." Vouchers were not designed to help low-income children.”(NEA) “Despite desperate efforts to make the voucher debate about "school choice" and improving opportunities for low-income students, vouchers remain an elitist strategy. From Milton Friedman's first proposals, through the tuition tax credit proposals of Ronald Reagan, through the voucher proposals on ballots in California, Colorado, and elsewhere, privatization strategies are about subsidizing tuition for students in private schools, not expanding opportunities for low-income children.”(NEA)


We have studies of dubious relevance, focusing on outcomes we might not care much about, under conditions we do not fully understand and so from which we cannot generalize, leading to results where the interpretation depends more upon the proclivities of the analysts that the strength of the patterns of data.”

—Henry M. Levin

Continuous research shows that studies fail to draw a comparison on the improvement in achievement when comparing voucher schools to public schools. “At present there is limited research evidence in America to support the value of vouchers improving students’ academic success in school.”(Good) The research that is there shows varied results. “those studies that showed a positive relationship between student achievement and school choice, the impact of school choice was minor, and other variables appeared to be more strongly associated with student achievement” (Good). Even in Milwaukee, “these advocates of choice indicated that there were sufficient numbers of missing cases that one cannot craw conclusions with complete certainty. There is no dependable research evidence available in the Milwaukee data to conclude that choice has had favorable impact on student achievement.”(Good) Current programs suggest that only a very small portion of eligible families apply for available tuition vouchers. Voucher opponents cite this as evidence that dissatisfaction with public schools is not widespread, and they are probably at least partially correct. In Milwaukee, fewer than 7% of eligible families apply for the voucher program, and in Cleveland the percentage is slightly smaller and has decreased in the three years of the program. Neither voucher program has produced the mass exodus from public schools that was forecast.(Metcalf and Tait)


"Vouchers would further limit already tight financing that causes districts to use outdated textbooks, computers and other equipment, to increase class sizes and to scrimp on teachers." Minnesota Education Association (An NEA affiliate). Andrew Coulson believes otherwise saying “the overwhelming majority of public schools are not underfunded, including those in depressed, inner-city areas. While there are some poorly funded districts scattered around the country, low funding is not the chief cause of decaying facilities and moribund materials.”(Coulson) He does not acknowledge that part of the money that is directed towards public school is set aside for vouchers, thereby limiting the financing for school districts. Mary Zapala, a principal from Milwaukee “claimed that the public schools in Milwaukee lost millions of dollars for students who were already in parochial schools.”(Good) She goes on to say “I like competition if it is fair. What seems to be wrong with this is that the playing field is not level. We have unionized teachers, licensing rules, required assessments they don’t. We have to take everyone. They can take a kid, get the money, and if there is any misbehavior, they can send him back to us mid-year.” The 'choice' remains with the private schools that will continue to pick and choose the students they wish to accept and reject. (Coulman) In Milwaukee, “special education spending accounted for 38 percent of net new K-12 spending from 1967 to 1991. The ability of voucher schools in Milwaukee to reject students with exceptional educational needs not only enables the private schools to focus on regular education; it also requires the Milwaukee Public Schools to spend a higher share of funds on special education.”(Molnar)


The focus of Vouchers is to sidestep the real issue of making public schools better for children. Given the research, Vouchers can have its benefits and detriments. The detriments outweigh the benefits and there are no current studies to show that vouchers are working. The methods for vouchers like lottery based vouchers, laissez-faire or first come – first admitted voucher plans are a ridiculous way of administering them. They are not evenhanded because they are not given to the most deserving student. A 1992 Carnegie Foundation report evaluated choice programs around the country and reached the following conclusions: (1) To the extent that choice programs benefit children at all, they benefit the children of better educated parents. (2) Choice programs require additional money to operate. (3) Choice programs have the potential to widen the gap between rich and poor school districts. (4) School choice does not necessarily improve student achievement.(Molnar) Voucher programs are intended to help the poor. However, they are being misused to further a debate about “school choice” and the underlying agenda of privatizing education.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

Vouchers are also known as:
A. Scholarships
B. Money
C. Government-aided programs
D. Tickets to a local show

A. Scholarships

One of the under-lying movements that supports vouchers is:
A. School choice
B. Privatization of schools
C. Public education
D. Local movie theaters

B. Privatization of schools

Studies comparing the educational achievement between charter schools and public schools:
A. Show charter schools have higher achievement.
B. Show public schools have higher achievement.
C. Show mixed results between both charter and public schools.
D. Show no results.

C. Show mixed results between both charter and public schools.

In regard to the 1998 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision regarding the "constitutionality" of the use of public funds to support private parochial schools was:
A. Unconstitutional because of the "Establishment Clause".
B. Not unconstitutional, "money went to parents, not schools".
C. They refused to hear the case.
D. Never resolved.

B. Not unconstitutional, "money went to parents, not schools".

Which President was active in educational reform helping to make the use of vouchers policy in some states?
A. Jimmy Carter
B. Ronald Reagan
C. Bill Clinton
D. George Bush

B. Ronald Reagan

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal a sample response.

What are the disadvantages of vouchers and do you support them?

There are many disadvantages to vouchers. They are the inequalities in which they are administered. A lottery system is not fair to low income students. This means that only few lucky students get the "choice" to go to another school and have their tuition paid. A laissez faire approach is not fair either. It would undermine the whole idea of vouchers because the ones that would be able to come first would be those able to apply. This would not be a fair representation. Who pays for the vouchers are the taxpayers. The same people that pay into the budget for public schools. Money for vouchers is set aside from this money so essentially taxpayers are supporting the voucher programs. With Voucher programs, students or families of the student, are given the choice to go to another school and most often that school is a private school that teaches religion. Some feel that this is a violation of the Establishment Clause because the money relegated to vouchers is supporting religion. This leaves the connotation that my tax dollars that should go to supporting the public school system is instead supporting some other schools "private" religious education. For some this may violate their beliefs and in many an opinion violates the constitution. Proponents of Vouchers received backing because vouchers are partly about privatization, limiting government. It takes away from the main purpose of Vouchers which was to provide low income families with the opportunity to get a better education. I believe the focus should remain where the problems lie, Public Schools. Instead of using vouchers to enable a select few to pursue their own education at a private school, the money should be used to better the public schools. Tuition costs are high for private schools. If parents choose to take their child out of public school to send them to a private school, they should solely bare the burden of finding the financial means to do it.