School vouchers: The baby versus the bathwater

You might be surprised to know that Elizabeth Warren has written in favor of school vouchers.  Granted, that was from a book that she co-authored with her daughter in 2003, but the position expressed in unequivocal.

The book is “The Two Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are (Still) Going Broke,” written by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi.

To get a better understanding of her words, let’s set a scenario. Suppose that you are a young couple and you move into a new neighborhood with other parents around your age. You love where you live and in most respects it is exactly where you would like to raise your children. But there is a problem. You are not confident that the local public schools will provide the kind of education that you would want for your children. And you’re not alone. Many of your neighbors feel the same way. So what are your choices? Let’s list them:

  1. Accept the situation as it is and go with the local public schools. Perhaps you can be good at “manipulating the system” to the benefit of your children. Perhaps not.
  2. Leave the neighborhood in which you want to live for another neighborhood with a public school system that you deem to be better.
  3. Stay in the neighborhood where you live, but send your children to private or parochial schools. Tuition for such schools could run from $5,000 to $22,000 per year per child. In 2017 dollars, that could run from $65,000 [thirteen years of school for one child in parochial school] to $858,000 [thirteen years of school for three children in non-religious private school].
  4. Home school your child or children. The cost to you would not be measured in tuition, rather in lost earnings if you chose to home school your children rather than opting to be in the work force outside of home-school.
  5. Get together with other parents in your neighborhood and work to start a new school for children in the neighborhood. It might be a school that would also be attractive to families outside of your immediate neighborhood.

This fifth option does not come free. The school is going to need teachers, a facility, supplies and money for a variety of other expenses ranging from field trips to specialist teachers. But it is a school that likely would have your imprint on it as well as those of other children and adults in the neighborhood.

There are two ways to fund this school. The first is to make it a private school and charge tuition. That may be a good idea, but it would be a financial burden on the families as described in option 3 above.

The second way (which is only available in a few communities in the United States) would be for the school to become a “voucher school.” By all rights, it should be a not-for-profit [501(c) 3 tax status] school. The money that would have been allocated for the children in the local public school district would now be allocated for your children and those of others so that they could attend this new school. In other words, the school would be funded by public money that would amount to the cost of educating each child in your school district by the number of children in the school.

From a societal point of view, there would be a downside in that the public school system would have less money for its operations. On the other hand, it would have fewer students to educate, thus reducing its expenses.

In the beginning, the parents of the students would still have costs. A facility would need to be rented, and eventually maybe a new structure built. That would require money that would not be included in the cost per pupil allocation from the local public school district.

If voucher funding were available, this kind of school would be a real option for parents and children. Here is what Elizabeth Warren and her daughter Amelia had to say about this option:

Any policy that loosens the ironclad relationship between location-location-location and school-school-school would eliminate the need for parents to pay an inflated price for a home just because it happens to lie within the boundaries of a desirable school district.

A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly. A taxpayer-funded voucher that paid the entire cost of educating a child (not just a partial subsidy) would open a range of opportunities to all children. Fully funded vouchers would relieve parents from the terrible choice of leaving their kids in lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools.

We recognize that the term “voucher” has become a dirty word in many educational circles. The reason is straightforward: The current debate over vouchers is framed as a public-versus-private rift, with vouchers denounced for draining off much-needed funds from public schools. The fear is that partial-subsidy vouchers provide a boost so that better-off parents can opt out of a failing public school system, while the other children are left behind.

When we talk about the baby and the bathwater with school vouchers, here is what the baby looks like:

  1. The school is not-for-profit, literally and legally. Tax dollars would not be siphoned to school corporations in which shareholders are profiting.
  2. The school does not have a religious affiliation.
  3. The school meets all standards for non-discrimination.

Democrats have shied away from vouchers for good reasons:

  1. There are legitimate concerns about religious affiliation. For the sake of practicality, I will agree with this concern, although I’m always open to the philosophical question of what’s the difference between a religion and any other set of beliefs.
  2. Schools that are not in the public sector potentially could be extremist and not respect the essential balance in a democracy between individual liberties and concern for the common good.
  3. Vouchers would siphon off money from the public schools, and thus weaken public school systems.
  4. The public schools would be left with only the children that no one else wants to educate.

These last two points are the trickiest ones for many liberals to accept. Here are quick responses to each concern:

  1. Yes, vouchers do siphon off money from public schools. But do we educate our children in order to preserve the public school system, or to provide the best schooling for the children who are of school age? If vouchers result in more students going to schools that satisfy both them and their parents, then the creation of these schools is a good thing. It’s not a race to see which communities can have the biggest public school systems. In fact, it’s not a race. It’s a complicated maze in which we try to pair as many students as possible with the schools that will serve them best. Don’t try measuring that, it’s a fool’s errand.
  2. It is true that public schools might be left with the students who “no one else wanted to teach.” But if vouchers would allow for the establishment of new kinds of schools, many of which would be small, that would allow teachers and counselors to work creatively with students who are struggling, it is possible that many teachers would feel a calling to work in such schools because they would see these schools as places where they could do the most amount of good. One of my dream jobs would be recruiting bright and caring students from our best colleges and universities to come teach in humane environment in our inner cities or in rural areas, and to get paid well for it.

Right now may not be the best time for a major effort to promote nationwide vouchers. But it would be very helpful to experiment with them further, particularly in our inner cities where so many young adults want to live, except for the lack of public schools to their liking. It is a good time for Democrats to put their knees in a brace, do away with the knee-jerk reaction, and give serious consideration to the potential upside of vouchers.