Rethinking Vouchers

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In the half-century since the idea of vouchers in education as put forward it has significantly influenced reform efforts in education and elsewhere. The essential idea of vouchers IS sImple: rather than government providing schools, government would provide credits to parents that allowed them to purchase their children’s education. Voucher advocates believe that vouchers would lead to more competition in education and thus improve educational performance.

Despite the intrinsic appeal of vouchers, they have never been given a systemic try in the United States – that is, while voucher programs have been implemented in a few cities, and in aspects of public education programs here and there, no state has organized a comprehensive education system along the lines suggested by voucher advocates. Vouchers remain largely in the realm of theory, not practice.

Some good has come out of the voucher movement. First, the looming spectre of vouchers has encouraged a considerable amount of reform activity among public educators. The charter school movement is to some extent a public school equivalent of vouchers. While charter schools are directly funded by government, they are freer in their operations than other public schools.

Also, open transfer policies, both within and between school districts, have been aided by the vouchers concept. The essential idea of vouchers is choice in education, and choice through transfers is a move in that direction. While I do not possess national data in this area, my impression (based on my home community) is that transfers between schools have increased in recent decades. This is consistent with the voucher approach.

Even home schools, to the extent they provide a choice in education, may be said to be influenced by vouchers. Home schools are the ultimate decentralized school program.

Finally, vouchers have had considerable influence outside of education. Privatization of government functions – where government payment for services would remain but government provision of services would not – is now a policy option in many areas, not just in education.

Notwithstanding the success and influence of the voucher idea both in education and out, in its primary area of intended application – schools – it has not been tried. Typically, voucher proposals that make it to a statewide ballot get shot down by a two-to-one, or even greater, margin.

The essential political problems of voucher implementation are two: first, the impression that vouchers would harm the public schools that continue (at least in the short run) to educate the vast majority of students; second, that vouchers are seen, correctly I think, as a radical reform of public education. Because of these problems, voucher approaches have failed, and advocates of choice in education need to move beyond past failures. I wish to offer some suggestions.

Package Reform 

It would be wise for voucher proponents to conSIder JOIn- ing their efforts to other reform proposals. That is, there is no reason why a vouchers proposal must stand alone in an education initiative – indeed, this is the course that has consistently resulted in failure at the ballot box. A better electoral strategy would be to make vouchers part of more comprehensive education reform.

For example, more days of school each year and more time at school each day both seem to result in better educational performance, particularly among poorer students. The school

Voucher approaches have failed, and advocates of choice in education need to move beyond past failures.


year could be extended up to 20 days each year, perhaps through summer school, and the school day up to an hour each day.

In addition to more time, higher standards for graduation are important to ensure that a high school diploma signifies some standard of learning. So great are the discrepancies in student achievement at this time that creating real high school graduation requirements would likely mean having more than one level of graduation – attendance, honors, and high honors.

Another reform that would cost little, and which is certainly consistent with the idea of more freedom in education, is allowing schools more flexibility to hire as teachers those who have only undergraduate degrees. One of the great problems in secondary education is recruiting teachers with degrees in math or science, because many individuals with these degrees are not able to take a year or more off from other commitments (including graduate school) to enroll in a year-long, full-time teacher preparation program.

Take Advantage of Demographics

Fortunately for reform efforts, the United States is entering a period when school enrollment will stabilize and even decline over the next decade. Births in the United States peaked in the early 1990s and have since declined slightly, with a slight uptick in the past few years.

Until recently, enrollments went up year after year. In 1975, there were 3.14 million live births in the United States, and in 1990 there were 4.16 million, close to a·one-third increase. At a lag of five years or so these births produced larger school enrollments.

Births went down after the early 1990s, to 3.9 million in 1995, 4.06 million in 2000, and 4.03 million in 2001. Because enrollment will remain about the same over the next decade in America’s schools, finances should become considerably easier for education, provided the economy remains buoyant. This should allow voucher proponents to put forward proposals that do not diminish funding for existing public schools, and thus have a higher chance of winning at the polls.

Concentrate on Urban Areas

It is likely, and there is some electoral evidence to indicate, that targeted voucher programs (i.e., restricted to some subset of students) do slightly better at the polls than those that would be universal (applicable to all students). Both liberals and conservatives agree that American education is weakest in urban areas. The suburbs usually have better school systems, or at least schools with which the residents are happier. Voucher proposals attempting to change the status quo often founder on the shoals of suburban resistance.

Accordingly, a good approach would be to focus on the inner cities. Adoption of some Schelling point (a figure on which people tend naturally to agree) of inadequate performance to trigger vouchers in a school district – say, average performance by students in a district at the 25th percentile or lower – would bring vouchers to many, possibly most, inner-city school districts. Vouchers would at last have the chance their supporters have long sought.

One of the advantages of a voucher proposal focused on inner cities is the potential return of middle- and upper-class families to urban areas. Wealthier families have exited urban and inner-city areas en.masse in recent decades, in large part

As a nation, America has moved from segregated schools to segregated school districts.


because of inadequate public schools. While consistent data on the socioeconomic status of families in cities and school districts are difficult to obtain, data on ethnicity are relatively accessible. In the early 1970s, the Los Angeles Unified School District had more than 250,000 Anglo students. Now, it has fewer than 50,000. Many other urban areas, for example, Boston, hav~ seen similar declines. As a nation, America has moved from segregated schools to segregated school districts. By making it easier for parents to form schools in cities, some suburban families would return to them.


If school choice is going to move from the realm of theory to the realm of practice, something has to be done. The voucher movement can help. But it can attract majority support only if it changes strategy and becomes part of a larger movement for educational reform – a movement that would have effects far beyond the classroom. Until then, new think- ing about how to improve the education our children receive can only be beneficial.

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