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School Vouchers: The Future or Demise of Education?

August 01, 2017
Debate over the best way to improve education has been raging for years. Proponents for school choice believe the education system should act like a market economy – give consumers (parents and students) the option to choose what school fits their needs best.

The best schools will thrive and the underperforming schools will fall away. On the other side of the spectrum are people who believe the government must invest to ensure all schools, no matter what neighborhood, provide adequate education to the communities they are serving.

While at times this debate can get fiery and political, both sides want the best education for the future of children, and therefore the nation.

A new bill, H.R. 610, under Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education administration was introduced in the House of Representatives on January 23, 2017. This bill, introduced by Iowa Congressman, Steve King, falls in the camp of free market style education proponents.

Among other things, H.R. 610 would repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that permits only the Department of Education to award qualified states block grants [1]. Instead, H.R. 610 would give the authority to distribute block grants to the states. [2] Setting up a voucher program, each state could award local education agencies (LEA), or school districts. [2] From there, the LEA would distribute money to the individual parents within their district. That money could be used to send their children to a public school, private school, or home-school their children.

Congressman King issued a statement touting his new bill. He, and fellow proponents, believe “this freedom of choice will result in parents being able to send their children to safer, better schools by taking Federal dollars from failing programs like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Common Core, reinsuring them direct control over important educational decisions”. [3] He also mentioned reinstalling competition into the education system, and making schools more efficient. [3]

Image: Congressman Steve King. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Congressman Steve King. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Supporters of school choice and vouchers also point to the equalizing power of vouchers, giving every child, regardless of economic background, the money and ability to go to whatever school they would like.

To the efficiency point of King’s statement, proponents believes that by allowing for freedom of choice between schools and not mandating attendance based on location, families and children do not need to be stuck in failing schools just because they live the closest. With a voucher good for multiple schools, the parents and children can treat schools like they would any other product on the market – choose the best fit for them based on multiple variables.

However, opponents to this bill have a lot of fodder to contest. Since the Department of Education would only be allowed to give block grants to the states, who then give them to the districts, opponents fear this legislation would severely decrease the ability of the Department to fund the public schools that serve many of the nation’s underprivileged and minority students.

While vouchers are given to all students, lower income families may not be as free to choose private schools if the voucher does not cover the full cost, therefore still leaving them behind in now even more underfunded public schools with wealthier students leaving them for the better schools elsewhere.

Aside from contradicting their ideals of public education for all, the bill also aims to roll back certain nutritional standards for school meal programs, including lunch and breakfast. [2] This would disband any regulations on the availability of fruits and vegetables or the amount of sugar, fat, sodium, or calories that can be in school-served meals. This is a major worry for lower income students who depend on school breakfast and lunch to eat.

Resistance has been quick to mobilize as dozens of op-eds in newspapers around the country have spoken out against the bill. Sites like MoveOn.org and Countable created petitions that allow citizens to sign their names and declare their opposition.

Like almost all legislation, this bill has effects far out reaching just education. Recently, businesses and corporate lobbyists have become more interested in education policy as they have seen the advantages it has for them. [4] Generally, corporate interests tend to support online learning platforms and privately run charter schools. [4] From there, one could assume businesses would support voucher programs, like the one suggested in H.R. 610 as it increases the likelihood parents will send their children to private and charter schools.

In an Economic Policy Institute report by Dr. Gordon Lafer, he suggests businesses support privately run schools as they can profit from private enterprises, as opposed to government operated public schools. [4] With vouchers, theoretically the under-performing public schools would close as more parents would opt for higher achieving private schools, therefore furthering the profits of businesses.

However, Dr. Lafer goes on to refute the assumption that charter and private schools are always better than public schools. In a study by Stanford University, 46 percent of charter schools were “statistically indistinguishable” from public schools and 37 percent were inferior. [5]

While supporting privately run schools could bring short term profits and increase efficiency in the education system, always a priority for businesses, cutting corners in something as important as education could have damaging effects on the future employees these same businesses are looking to hire. With less emphasis on arts and music, lower quality teachers, and fewer extracurricular activities that may save a few dollars, students are not leaving schools fully prepared to navigate and thrive in the competitive job market. This ultimately hurts the employers with less skilled workers.

Businesses should support public schooling to invest in the education of every child, regardless of neighborhood, economic background, or where they can get in, to ensure that the future job market will be healthy, knowledgeable, and ripe for the picking of one from many capable workers.

As of now, the bill is stalled in committee. On the day it was introduced, it was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Since then, no further actions have been made. With no related or identical bills in the Senate, the future of state-wide voucher programs lies in the hands of the nation’s House of Representatives. With a Congress that has had trouble getting bigger priorities, like healthcare and tax reform passed, it may be a while before H.R. 610 sees any movement towards law.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


References

 [1] H.R. 2362, 89th Cong., Department of Education (2015) (enacted).
 [2] To distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students and to repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools., H.R. 610, 115th Cong., U.S. Congress (2017).
 [3] Office of Congressman Steve King. (2017, January 23). King Introduces Choices in Education Act of 2017 [Press release]. Retrieved July 5, 2017
 [4] Lafer, G. (2014). Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Publication No. 375). Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.
 [5] Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). 2009. Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States. Stanford University.

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