An update on the voucher debate


Again, my apologies for the long radio silence. We had a death in the family, and I’ve been too preoccupied to pursue my usual web surfing.

I’m back home now, and wanted to share a couple of interesting articles about school vouchers. Yesterday’s New York Times ran an update on voucher laws around the country. I found the article remarkably balanced, with commentary from voucher supporters and detractors. Here’s the opening paragraph:

A growing number of lawmakers across the country are taking steps to redefine public education, shifting the debate from the classroom to the pocketbook. Instead of simply financing a traditional system of neighborhood schools, legislators and some governors are headed toward funneling public money directly to families, who would be free to choose the kind of schooling they believe is best for their children, be it public, charter, private, religious, online or at home.

I wouldn’t say it’s a shift from classrooms to pocketbooks so much as a shift from government to parent control . . . but I know that many of my readers would disagree. Have at it.

Today’s Wall Street Journal published an editorial about Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to expand Wisconsin’s quite successful voucher program for disadvataged students to other districts with failing schools. Turns out he’s running into considerable opposition . . . from fellow Republicans.

Again, my own biases are showing here, but it disturbs me that politicians representing mostly well-heeled families whose kids attend strong public schools are standing in the way of reforms that could help, well, other peoples’ kids. I am posting the entire editorial, since WSJ artices can be hard for non-subscribers to get.

School vouchers are usually opposed by teachers unions and their Democratic allies, but a dirty little secret is that some suburban Republicans oppose them too. The latter is the case in Wisconsin, where GOP Governor Scott Walker’s plan to get more kids out of failing schools is facing opposition from short-sighted members of his own party.

The Badger State’s 22-year-old voucher program currently covers Milwaukee and Racine. But in his budget for fiscal 2014-15, Mr. Walker wants to expand it to nine of the state’s worst school districts and increase funding by 9%. Under the proposed formula, students in districts that have at least two schools that get a D or F on their 2011-2012 performance report cards could use a voucher at a private school.

The plan would cover 500 new students in the first year, 1,000 in the second, and thereafter as many as qualified under the formula, which extends the voucher to students in failing schools whose families make 300% of the poverty level. The new areas include Beloit, Green Bay, Kenosha, Waukesha and Fond du Lac, and more than 40,000 children who currently attend lousy public schools would be eligible.

That should please Neenah Republican and Wisconsin Senate President Mike Ellis, who last year called Green Bay’s Preble High School a “sewer.” But Mr. Ellis has instead promised to block Mr. Walker’s proposal, saying that the Governor had not respected the input of eight or 10 Republicans who didn’t want more vouchers in the budget. “This is phase one of a wide-open school voucher program for the state,” Mr. Ellis moans.

But what would be wrong with that? According to the School Choice Demonstration Project, 94% of students who have received vouchers in Milwaukee graduate from high school, compared to 75% from the Milwaukee public schools. They’re also more likely to go to college.

While Wisconsin schools score better than most, in 2010 the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that Wisconsin’s black fourth grade students had the worst reading scores in the country. By eighth grade, black students did worse on English tests than students for whom English was a second language.

Unions are rolling out the usual canard that vouchers steal funds from public schools, though research shows that competition from charter schools and vouchers often causes traditional public schools to improve. The state money would follow the student, but the $6,442 voucher is far less than the $13,269 it currently costs to educate a child in traditional public schools. Voucher funding has been relatively unchanged for a decade, so Mr. Walker’s proposal would be a moderate expansion.

One reason school reform has been so politically difficult is that too many suburban parents think the problem is confined to inner-city schools when their own schools fail to educate thousands. Republicans too often play to this conceit, especially when it means they can win union support. Mr. Walker has put the GOP on the right side of the reform debate, and his party should get behind him.


  1. Carolyn Sharette

    Thanks for the article Mary, and condolences to you and your family.

    School choice and vouchers are an interesting political topic. You would think that Utah, being a predominantly Republican state, would support vouchers. But you bring up an excellent point with regard to who opposes them, and it is often those with means whose kids attend a good public school and who then develop an opinion that “if it’s good enough for my child, it’s good enough for you” and “if something’s wrong with your child’s education, it must be YOUR fault because my kid is doing just fine in the public school”. Many are satisfied with that position, even though it ignores the fact that many minority and at-risk kids are failing in our public schools regardless of the efforts of their parents. I guess it is easier to just blame the parents and allow the failure to continue, year after year, rather than admit that although the system may work well for some, it does not work well for all, and society would benefit by allowing families to find a successful educational setting for all children. Less ignorance = less crime and welfare.

    My hope lies in the generation of 20-somethings who, when told they will be forced to send their future child to a school in their neighborhood, regardless of how good or bad it is, seem to respond with much more incredulity (and common sense) than the previous generations of parents. It is exciting to see the “entitlement” generation reaping a positive consequence for what was previously and generally considered an entitled attitude that made them “spoiled”.

    It is refreshing to hear their views that education is a commodity they should be able to acquire from multiple, competitive vendors, and find the fit that is right for their child and their family. This generation is “having it their way” from their birth practices to the food they consume to the jobs they will take – and education will benefit from their penchant for getting what they want.

    It is taking much longer than Milton Friedman supposed, and much longer than I even imagined, but vouchers will become the reality in public education. It is inevitable in my mind because as this generation of charter school and private school students (numbering in the tens of thousands) grows up and has their own children, they simply will not tolerate being forced to send their children to a sub-par school or be willing to be at the mercy of lengthy charter school waiting lists. I look forward to the day when parents, and not government agencies, drive the education marketplace.

  2. Furry21993

    The people of Utah have spoken on the subject of vouchers. They resoundingly said NO!!!! Why does the DesNews keep bringing up this old, dead issue

    • Mary McConnell

      I’m not the Deseret News – just an individual blogger.

      I continue to bring up vouchers because I would prefer an education system where parents could choose among more options – especially poor and minority parents. But trust me, I’m not expecting to win this debate. I’m just trying to keep it alive.

      • Furry1993

        I have no problem with parents being able to select, at no cost for basic education, among the PUBLIC schools that would best suit their children’s needs. I have no problem with parents being able to select, at their cost, aong private schools that would best suit their children’s needs. I do not, however, think that public funds should go to support private schools. If parents want to send their children to private schools, they should do what my husband and I did — pay for it themselves.

  3. Ed Mirrell

    I am against vouchers but am in favor of finding school board members, administrator and teachers who have the backbone to promote the idea that schools are to be first and foremost centers of learning. I understand all the other reasons for schools (the social interaction, the fine arts, the athletics, etc…) but when all of those reasons take greater precedence than learning, as they have today, then the argument in favor of vouchers becomes more valid. A first step: enforce attendance policies in your school district. Step two would be to end social promotion in the elementary and middle schools. Step three ties into step two. If standardized tests are to be used to determine teacher effectiveness then they must also be used to ensure that no student advances in grade level unless they are capable.

  4. Carolyn Sharette

    I realize that the anti-school choice folks really wish that it was a “one and done” situation with vouchers, but I don’t believe that will be the case. Like most other impactful societal changes, I believe we will see several efforts before we finally get it right with regard to education and vouchers. Abolishing slavery and establishing civil rights has taken many such efforts over more than a century – and education choice is something I believe will march forward, with incremental changes, until we have a fully free educational marketplace. I hope I am alive to see it a bit further along.

  5. Kevin Lloyd

    Vouchers are not the answer. Parents are free to choose where to send their children, but don’t expect the public to agree to pay for those choices. If the parents can’t afford to pay for the school they have chosen, then I would recommend they get involved in the community councils, PTA, and other volunteer organizations for the schools in their neighborhood.

    I hear people say all the time that the public schools don’t want or even discourage parental involvement, but that is not the case. I would rather see parents and other adults rally around their neighborhood schools. Not only does that transform the schools, but it improves the entire community.

    I fear that with the push to privatize education we lose the sense of community pride that good neighborhood schools bring. Let’s start pushing for communities to rally around their community schools and improve them instead of pushing them to constantly shop for the better private or charter school. People may not admit it, but there are too many students in the charter school program who jump from school to school and never get that stability and sense of community that can come from continued enrollment in their neighborhood schools.

  6. Breck England

    The blind spot of voucher proponents is this: A voucher for $x only buys x amount of education. Under a voucher system, wealthier people will be able to buy X + any amount they want. This will lead very quickly to a stratified culture, where kids from poor families will actually be doomed to strip mall education factories while wealthier people will send their kids to Waterford. It will mean the creation of a permanent underclass. I’m surprised you don’t’ see this.

    • Stephanie Sawyer

      Many private schools offer tuition assistance; there are already students getting the same quality private school education for less than the full tuition, here in Utah.

      You say that “This will lead very quickly to a stratified culture,…” but it isn’t now? Educationally speaking, the culture is already stratified with students being “assigned” to a school based on their ZIP code. If all you have to offer is PS2 instead of PS1, then of course you won’t necessarily see the motivation for parents to do something different.

      As for the term “strip mall education,” many of us who have a child in the public school see it as that way already. It doesn’t matter if you are in the PTA and actively involved, curricular decisions travel down the chain of command, so I can wail all I want about how I don’t think the current math curriculum actually supports learning, I will get no response except “this is what the district/state mandates.” And that will be the response at PS2 as well as PS1.

      We already have strip mall education. And the strip mall is the public school system.

Leave a comment encourages a civil dialogue among its readers. We welcome your thoughtful comments.