Friday Freakout: What is Wrong with School Vouchers?

The Tennessean published an editorial by George Parker, a 30-year veteran public school math teacher, former president of the Washington Teachers Union, and current senior fellow at StudentsFirst, titled“School vouchers put kids’ needs first.” In the article, Parker explains how working for a teachers’ union influenced his opposition to school vouchers and why he’s had a change of heart.

Today’s freakout comes from another veteran public school teacher and Tennessee Education Association (TEA) member in that article’s comments section:

Ed Johnson
Let’s break down Ed’s points.

“The first thing that the author, as a career educator, should know is that the TEA is not a union. We are a professional association dedicated to the betterment of public education. Our only activity that classified us as a union was collective bargaining, and that was taken away three years ago.”

Although the TEA is no longer technically a union, there’s more to the story. The TEA is the Tennessee affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA). The American Federation of Teachers is by definition a teachers’ union. With that in mind, consider these three mission statements:

AFT: “The American Federation of Teachers is a union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities. We are committed to advancing these principles through community engagement, organizing, collective bargaining and political activism, and especially through the work our members do.”

NEA: “Our mission is to advocate for education professionals and to unite our members and the nation to fulfill the promise of public education to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world.”

TEA: “The mission of the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) is to promote, advance and protect public education, the education profession, and the rights and interests of our members.”

These organizations’ interests are clear. An industry, not children, are at the forefront. The NEA and its affiliates also spent roughly $15.7 million in 2012 alone campaigning against school choice programs for children.

“The second thing that the writer should know is that our public tax money should not be going to private schools, especially not those tied to a certain religion. Yet the same people who are adamant about the separation of church and state are also advocating using government funds to help support religion-affiliated schools.”

When we think of the ultimate authority on separation of church and state, we think of the Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of it. Many people simply don’t know that our highest court has heard and ruled in favor of the constitutionality of school choice vouchers. That case was Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.

Furthermore, in reality, very few of America’s children are receiving religious instruction with the help of vouchers. Conceptually, school choice vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts are just as useful for families who want to avoid religion in their children’s schooling.

It is also important to note that many people like Ed believe school vouchers work like this: First, a bunch of parents are handed vouchers, then they run and beg private religious schools to admit their children. That is a misnomer—a wild misrepresentation actually—and it is one being perpetuated by opponents to convince people school choice programs are unstable and unregulated. The true funnel for how school vouchers work goes like this: First, parents work with private schools to find a match for their child, then, if eligible, the school their child is admitted to is sent a voucher for the parent to sign, which works essentially like financial aid.

“The third thing that the writer should know is that, overall, voucher systems have failed to live up to their promise. They have given special treatment to a few instead of trying to improve education for all students.”

School choice programs promise to empower parents to send their children to a school they think fits their child’s needs. In that respect, they have lived up to the promise. Surveys of school choice parents in Arizona and Indiana show more than 99 percent report positive levels of satisfaction with their respective programs. If Ed is referring to academic outcomes, there are 11 randomized control trial studies, a few of which the U.S. Department of Education approved as well, that show school choice programs cause academic improvement for voucher users. Zero empirical studies have shown students who used vouchers declined academically.

Ed and many other school voucher critics claim programs in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee are “massive failures.” Their evidence? Ed said, “Try googling.’”

There is no empirical research to support the claim, but we humored his Google request, and what did we find?

  1. Bad comparisons. For example, one comparing test scores of voucher students (most of whom were behind several grades academically before receiving a voucher) to the average test scores of the entire public school student population in that city and the average scores of the entire public school population of low-income students. You don’t have to be a genius to see what’s wrong with that comparison.
  2. An overwhelming concentration on test scores. School choice opponents, who are often public school advocates as well, are constantly campaigning that too much emphasis is put on high-stakes test scores. They are not a genuine metric for learning. They are a metric for memorization and test preparation. These are the positions of the same people who immediately turn to test scores to try to debunk the effectiveness of schools choice programs. Can you see how that doesn’t make sense?

Measures of academic success for an individual child are just that—individual. The success metrics of a child with severe autism who can’t speak are going to be vastly different from those of a child who takes AP Calculus. So why label all of the children from any school or program with one average test score?

To Ed’s other point, supporting school choice options and supporting the improvement of public schools for all are not mutually exclusive. It’s not an either/or situation. School choice supporters and advocates are not standing in the way or fighting against public schools’ efforts to improve student experiences. A true school choice supporter wants schools in all sectors to be high-quality.

“The fourth thing that the writer should know is that a voucher system really doesn’t put parents in control. Most will not get their first choice or second choice or even third choice because the people who are really in control are administrators of private schools.”

Vouchers absolutely give parents more control than they would otherwise have had. Without a voucher, parents have one choice—their ZIP Code-assigned school—and the only way they can control that choice is by how much they can afford in rent or a mortgage. If they don’t have the cash, who is in control of their choice? Government officials and politicians who arbitrarily draw district lines and who often cannot know about their personal needs. That is a system that benefits the rich while disenfranchising the middle-class and the poor. A voucher hands the controls over to parents by affording them options.

Furthermore, private school parents do have more control than they would in a traditional public school system. How? If their needs/requests aren’t met, they can leave and take their money with them.

Ultimately, no one school can offer the perfect combination of resources, culture, size, discipline, social setting, and so on to fit every child’s needs. It is great that public schools try to meet the needs of as many kids as possible, and they do work for many. But, there will always be some kids who don’t thrive in that model. School choice is there to help them.