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It’s a standard economic truth that competition in the free market drives performance. Whether or not this principle can be as readily applied to education is hotly contested on both sides, but a new study out of San Antonio’s Edgewood Independent School District suggests that school vouchers might have benefits for students, schools and communities alike.
What are vouchers?
In short, school vouchers are just a different way to fund schools—they channel money towards families instead of school districts. Voucher programs, which can be funded at any level from the federal to the corporate, issue that funding in the form of whole or partial tuition certificates for students wanting to attend participating public or private schools. Voucher options and implementation vary widely; some programs give vouchers only to low-income students or students at failing schools, and others extend the opportunity universally. The voucher system is based on the principle that parental school choice and competition between public and private schools will help raise the educational bar all around.
Why vouchers might work . . .
Hardly a day passes without some mention in the news of how American education is failing our kids. Proponents of school vouchers see them as a potential solution to this problem. In business, this competitive model is the ideal—corporate productivity, innovation and accountability go up when consumers are given more options. Schools are no different, supporters say, and they see vouchers as more effective than asking tax payers to bail out failing public schools.
Moreover, while wealthy parents have always had a choice as to where to send their kids for a good education, vouchers extend this same opportunity to lower-income families and traditionally underrepresented populations. Students who have special needs could benefit from the options afforded to them under the voucher system. And better yet, augmented educational choices across the economic and social board can increase diversity within the schools—and research abounds on the benefits of diversity in the classroom.
. . . and why they might not.
Opponents worry that voucher programs might actually undermine public education by taking money away from schools that are already desperately underfunded. Instead of bridging the gap between high-performing and underperforming schools, they believe that vouchers will actually increase the disparity, making good schools better and bad schools even worse. Uneven control of the programs and curriculum, especially at private schools which may lack government oversight, could also present its own headaches.
Another big concern for challengers of the voucher system is that in their eyes, it violates separation of church and state in that at least some of the government-funded vouchers will inevitably contribute to church-run private schools. And vouchers might not actually increase diversity after all, detractors say. One common critique of the voucher system is that it produces “creaming” (recruiting of a district’s elite by private schools) or that even under the program, private schools still retain options for turning away students or raising tuition above the voucher-funding level, making it difficult for all but the elite to attend.