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Curmudgucation: Universal Vouchers Unmask True Goals

The voucher pitch, in state after state, has been that poor, low-resource families need taxpayer-funded education vouchers in order to escape "failing" public schools. Privatizers have been selling the failing public school narrative since the Reagan administration engineered their first big piece of marketing-- A Nation at Risk

At the last Network for Public Education conference, I had the chance to hear James Harvey, the guy who was in the room where it happened, talk about how attempts at moderation and actual fact-based items were brushed aside; it's impossible to take the finished product seriously as anything other than a propaganda tool. 

But it did the job. It helped set the stage for high stakes testing, which policy makers understood was necessary as a tool to root out all the bad schools and bad teachers, which in turn got us to No Child Left Behind, a policy that guaranteed that by 2014 all schools would be either failing or cheating (or, I suppose, miraculous in getting all students to score above average on the Big Standardized Test).

Once the alarms were ringing, the pressure could be increased for a means of "escaping" these terrible public schools. Help the many public schools that were under-resourced and struggling? No, the line there was "we already spend money on those schools and they are still struggling. Better we should rescue at least a few students from them."

First, charters, because vouchers were still a bridge too far. And then vouchers (under various assumed names), expressly to save the struggling poor from their failing public schools. And now, at last, universal vouchers--vouchers for one and all, no matter how poor their family or how high their public school's test scores.

In Florida and Arizona and Arkansas and the rest, the story is the same. Universal vouchers don't help more poor families. How could they, since making vouchers universal means raising or removing the income cap for families? Raising an income cap from $65K to $125K does not include more poor people (a thing I can't believe I have to actually point out, but here we are). 

Nor does making vouchers universal make private school admissions universal. Private schools can still accept or reject anyone they wish for any reason they want to concoct. In fact, most voucher laws now require the state to keep hands off. And we're seeing private school raise tuitions as more taxpayer-funded vouchers become available. All of which helps insure that none of Those Peoples' Children will have any more access to upscale exclusive private schools than they ever could. Let them take their piddly little voucher and go set up a microschool

Making vouchers universal doesn't extend any of the promises made originally for vouchers. It doesn't reach more people in need, and it doesn't extend the reach of quality education. What it does is provide a subsidy for people already in the private school system and through them, subsidies for schools that largely prefer to put forth a religious curriculum that public schools rightly eschew (mostly). Of course we're finding in universal voucher states like Arkansas that the vast majority of taxpayer-funded vouchers are being used by students who are already in private school.

My usual caveat--at every stage of this, you will find people who sincerely believe in the correctness of their policy preferences. But there is a through line for all this composed of folks whose primary interest is the Friedmanesque dream of a nation in which government has nothing to do with education.

Making vouchers universal doesn't increase the amount of high quality education nor access to it. It only increases the taxpayer dollars to used subsidize the Right Students in learning the Right Things. 

I disagree with people who complain, "I pay my taxes. Why should I have to pay for a public education system and the private tuition for my child? Why should I pay for education twice?" I disagree with them, but they are at least making an honest argument instead of trying to hide behind poor children and a manufactured crisis. But for universal vouchers, there's not much of an argument to make other than "I want my favorite private school to get a bunch of free taxpayer money, with no government oversight or taxpayer accountability." 

That's not much of a winning argument. There's a reason that polls from choicer advocates ask questions like "Do you think a child should be able to attend the school of their choice for free" and not "Would you like your tax dollars for education not to fund your public school, but instead go to subsidize tuition for a family that makes twice what you do so that their child can attend a private religious school that would never accept any of your children as students?"


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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...