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School Vouchers Versus Fiscal Responsibility

The debate over school vouchers is heating up once again, as are the accompanying arguments about the academic, social and emotional impact of these vouchers on the students they serve and the public schools they leave, and the role of choice in our education system.But something that I am not hearing a lot about is the cost of voucher programs. I find this surprising given the budget situation in many of the places exploring voucher programs. 

Consider what is happening at the federal level. The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to reinstate the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only program in the nation to use federal tax dollars to subsidize private school tuition. They also voted to increase the amount of federal dollars going to each student: In the past, the program offered vouchers of $7,500 per student per year, but this proposal ups that to $8,000 for elementary and middle school students and $12,000 for high school students. The anticipated cost to taxpayers: $300 million over five years, with $100 million going to the voucher program and the rest going to DC public and charter schools. The bill is now headed to the Senate.

From my (admittedly limited) understanding, this bill does not propose any cuts in spending to pay for this program, which means this is $300 million in new funding. Is this really the best way to spend taxpayer money at this time? Perhaps that money could impact more children if it were directed, for example, towards Head Start, an early education program for disadvantaged children that has been targeted for extensive cuts.

Several states are considering vouchers, too, at the expense of other programs. In Minnesota, the House recently voted to scrap an integration program and freeze special education funding in favor of vouchers for low-income families at struggling public schools.

Minnesota ‘s voucher program is fairly targeted. But lawmakers in other states are proposing much broader programs. For example, in Indiana, House Republicans sent to the Senate a voucher plan that has no limit on the number of students who could be served (starting in the third year of implementation) and reaches into the middle class, offering vouchers to families that earn over $60,000 a year. Lawmakers in Ohio are considering a bill that would offer vouchers to families with household incomes up to two-and-a-half times the federal reduced-price lunch eligibility level – or over $100,000. By the 2012-13 school year, the bill would allow some families with children currently enrolled in private schools to use the voucher, creating new costs for taxpayers.

Both Indiana and Ohio are facing tough budgets this year. Indiana has proposed steep cuts to education funding, while Ohio may severely cut funding to local governments. For me, this waves a huge red flag – I think we need to encourage using our limited funds on proven strategies for academic improvement, like keeping class sizes low (especially in the early grades and for disadvantaged students) and early childhood education, rather than on voucher programs that have a very limited impact.

But I have concerns about vouchers regardless of fiscal circumstance. So I will leave you with the words of Terry Ryan, who is vice-president for Ohio Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute/Foundation and heavily involved with the non-profit School Choice Ohio:

These fiscal realities raise an uncomfortable question for school choice supporters, myself included.  Is now the right time to support the creation of a new school choice program that is essentially aimed at middle-class families? Just as some Republicans are starting to question how much defense spending the nation can afford, it is time for school reformers to ask tough questions about how much school choice we can afford. What’s more important for conservatives – more school choice or making our ends meet?

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