Curmudgucation: Questions for Voucher Supporters
In Pennsylvania, the GOP is still pursuing the voucher program that Governor Shapiro just vetoed. Their dismay over his veto is understandable-- it's a version of the long-pitched voucher program that was tooled to meet his requirements. So the GOP can be forgiven for feeling as if they're victims of a bait and switch from someone who said "This is what I want," and then, presented with that, said, "No, not that."
So the full court press is on. And it has the same problem as other voucher bills. I'm going to skip over the philosophical issues, like the fundamental question of whether we should have education as a shared responsibility and public good or as a market-based good, or the basic efficiency of running multiple education systems. Those are important questions, but the various players already have their position staked out, and sometimes I fear that discussions of broad philosophical issues let us skip past some major practical matters.
So I want to ask some questions that address practical concerns that should be concerns even for conservative supporters of vouchers, and which have to be addressed one way or another in order to create a voucher system.
Here's a basic set of questions that every voucher advocate should be asked.
1) What regulations you support to keep private schools from denying voucher students?
What good does it do to give a family a voucher if the school they choose will not admit the student? Most recent voucher bills include a "hands off" clause that says the state will not be allowed to interfere in how the school operates, but if the private schools can pick and choose which students to admit, what good is a voucher to a student who is not a desirable "get" for a private school? If this is about putting kids above "special interests," why put the special interests of the school operators ahead of the needs or desires of the students?
2) Do you support allowing private schools to discriminate on the basis of religion?
In most voucher states, vouchers are used for private religious schools, including those that discriminate against LGBTQ students or families and others that require a family be born-again Christians. It's not an answer to say, "Well, why would non-religious people want to attend such a school?" They might. The religious school might have an attractive location or academic program. Should be schools be allowed to discriminate against them, and should the taxpayers foot the bill in such cases?
3) What kind of oversight and accountability do you support?
It's not going to help if students escape a failing public school and end up in a failing private school. Voucher programs tend to lead to "pop-up" schools created simply to take advantage of the voucher program, and these "sub-prime" schools tend to be not good. Of course families can "vote with their feet," but by the time they are exiting the school, damage has already been done.
4) What kind of taxpayer accountability and oversight do you support?
Taxpayers have a right to know how their dollars are spent. How will you insure that voucher dollars are transparently and accountably spent? In particular, who will protect or represent the interests of taxpayers without children, who will foot the bill but have no say in how the money is spent?
5) Do you support regulating or mitigating private school tuition costs?
Cost is another barrier to choice that vouchers don't fully address. Vouchers will not cover the cost of the more expensive private schools (especially if costs like uniforms and transportation are factored in). In several voucher states, private schools have increased their tuition costs specifically because of vouchers. Families could of course borrow money to attend private schools still financially out of their reach, but we've seen how that can work out on the college level. Should a voucher system be one that provides choice to families with a certain amount of wealth?
6) Where do you see voucher levels long term?
In ten years, will voucher amounts be the same as the current proposed level? Do you anticipate raising the dollar value of the voucher over the years, or will the real value of the voucher shrink?
7) What about the students left behind?
For a variety of reasons (many of which are suggested above), only a small percentage of the students at the failing public schools will be able to use vouchers to "escape." What solutions do you propose for the other students who are left behind at those schools?
8) How will you manage the impact of the voucher program on taxpayers?
In several states, the cost of the voucher program to the state treasury has ballooned hundreds of millions of dollars above original projections. Do you anticipate avoiding that scenario here?
You can't install a voucher system without answering these questions, whether you do so openly and publicly or just quietly in the office. But every one of them has big implications for taxpayers and parents.
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