Jessica Levin: The Problem with Private School Vouchers
Jessica Levin is a senior attorney at the Education Law Center. In this piece from the recent education issue of The Progressive, she looks at the wave of voucher laws sweeping the nation during this perfect storm for privatizers.
At a very basic level, private school vouchers don’t do what education policies are supposed to: promote positive educational results. Study after study has shown that students who use vouchers to attend private school don’t perform any better than their public school peers. In fact, some studies have found that academic outcomes worsen for voucher students.
The claim that vouchers save money is only persuasive if you don’t have all the facts. The idea that vouchers simply shift to private schools the funds that would have been used on public education is a myth. Voucher programs often subsidize private education for families that can already afford it, and whose children would never have attended public schools.
The amount of a voucher often falls far short of the full cost of private school tuition, meaning families must make up the difference. And vouchers often shift expenses for essential services to parents that are normally included in a free public school education, such as transportation, free and reduced price lunch, and disability-related services. If vouchers save the state money, it is on the backs of children and families.
But vouchers don’t save money for the government, either. A recent study published by the National Education Policy Center concluded that implementing universal vouchers would increase the total cost to the public by 11 to 33 percent, or up to $203 billion per year. Because private schools can discriminate in enrollment and services, voucher programs can concentrate in public schools those students who require increased resources to access equitable educational opportunities, such as students with disabilities and those learning English.
Public school systems also have substantial fixed costs—including facilities and staff contracts—that cannot be reduced when students from different classrooms, grades, and school buildings exit to use vouchers. Fraud and waste are common in voucher programs, and there is scant fiscal accountability for private schools or voucher-granting organizations.
Finally, privatizers’ assertions that vouchers promote civil rights are absurd. Voucher programs came about after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision so white families could attend segregated private schools and thereby avoid integration. Today vouchers often play a similar role, or at least have similar segregative effects. A 2017 Century Foundation report concluded that “voucher programs are more likely to increase school segregation than to promote integration or maintain the status quo.”