School Vouchers — Why I Oppose Them
One of the issues currently before the Indiana General Assembly (and which is included in the list of grievances that has caused House Democrats to leave the state in order to deny Republicans a quorum) is a school voucher program (dubbed “school scholarships” in the statutory language). I realized that I haven’t directly expressed my thoughts on vouchers in previous posts on this blog. Well, allow me to rectify that omission: I am firmly opposed to school vouchers.
OK. Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let’s go back and look at the issue in a bit more detail. First, if you’re interested in reading the proposed legislation, it is set forth in Indiana House Bill 1003. Unfortunately, this is another one of those bills that is very difficult to read due to the numerous cross-references and the way that these sorts of bills are formatted. So let me just quote the digest of the bill (prepared by Indiana’s Legislative Services Agency):
School scholarships. Increases the school scholarship tax credits that may be awarded for donations to a scholarship granting organization. Allows scholarship granting organizations to grant scholarships to families with income that is not more than 200% of the amount required for the individual to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program. Provides scholarships to low income students to pay the costs of tuition and fees at a public or private elementary school or high school that charges tuition. Prohibits a scholarship granting organization from limiting the availability of scholarships to students of only one participating school. Provides for a supplemental distribution to public schools equal to the difference between the amount distributed as choice scholarships and the amount that would have been distributed to public schools to educate the children receiving choice scholarships. Requires fair admissions policies for schools eligible for choice scholarships. Limits the choice scholarship granted to a student in grade 1 through 8 to $4,500 per school year. Provides consequences for nonpublic schools who receive: (1) consecutive low category designations for school performance and improvement; and (2) a distribution of choice scholarships. Provides for any savings from the choice scholarships to be used for tuition support for schools. Makes conforming changes.
But even that is a lot of mumbo jumbo. So let me boil it down even further. The proposed bill would allow students to get money from the state (in the form of a “school scholarship” — also known as a voucher) to attend a private school. The money would come from the money that would otherwise go to the public school system that student would have attended if the student did not enroll at the private school. The student would be eligible for the voucher if the student’s family’s income was less than $97,000 for a family of four (give or take; the amount is 200% of the amount required for an individual to qualify for the free or reduced lunch program which, as of 2009 was $47,712 per year for a family of four). And the voucher could not exceed $4,500 per year for grades 1-8. There’s more, but that should give you the general idea.
So, with that in mind, let’s examine why I oppose vouchers.
First, let’s consider the following provisions from Indiana’s Constitution (emphasis added):
Article 8, Section 1: Knowledge and learning, general diffused throughout a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government; it should be the duty of the General Assembly to encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual scientific, and agricultural improvement; and provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.
Article 1, Section 6: No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.
See any problems yet? First, my guess is that the vast majority of private schools that might receive voucher funds are faith-based. Just thinking about the Indianapolis area, I can think of numerous religious schools but only a small handful of secular private schools (Park Tudor, University High School, and International School of Indiana). Yet the voucher program would take funds from public schools and essentially transfer those funds to private religious institutions. As I understand it, the drafters of the bill try to get around this by having the funds given to an intermediary scholarship organization which, in turn, gives the funds to the parent to give to the school (or some such). But the end result is the same: Money collected from taxes is paid to religious schools to educate Hoosier children who could otherwise be educated in public schools.
Next, let’s think about those private schools in comparison to public schools. First, unlike public schools, private schools are not obligated to accept any student that walks in the door. So if a private school wants to turn away certain kids, it can certainly do so. And in the case of religious schools, I believe that means that the school could turn away kids not of that religious denomination. (If I’m not mistaken, the school could not turn away a child due to race or certain other criteria.) The private schools can also turn away students that they believe may be harder to educate, whether because of a learning disability, an unstable or unsupportive home, lack of good English skills, or any other non-discriminatory reason. In other words, the private schools can “skim” the best students and leave the more difficult students for the public schools. When you consider that the private schools don’t (I don’t think) have to accept special needs students, then this situation is exacerbated even further.
Private schools also are not obligated to teach up to state (or federal) standards. If a private school wants to teach creation as fact, that all Muslims are evil, that Jews killed Christ, that women should be barefoot and pregnant, that the Earth is flat and is circled by the planets, or that 2+2 = a rhinoceros, nothing is stopping them from doing so. Moreover, the teachers in the private school (again, as I understand it) need not be licensed by Indiana. I don’t think that these sorts of problems are particularly problematic as they relate to the highly regarded private schools, but who knows about the smaller, parochial schools or the new parochial schools that might be established to take advantage of voucher programs. I can certainly imagine churches starting new, small schools to educate kids as the church believes best at the lowest cost possible with the payments to come from the voucher system. And I can just hear the howls of protest that might arise if a local Muslim organization started a Islamist madrasa and sought the use of vouchers to help students attend and become radicalized.
At least when it comes to public schools, the curriculum is determined (or at least influenced by) elected representatives. Thus, we all have some kind of input into what our children are being taught. In the case of private schools (and religious schools in particular), there is likely little or no input into the curriculum (other than, perhaps, from the families of the kids that attend that particular school; but, for example, in the case of Catholic schools, how much input to parents have in the curriculum?), notwithstanding that with vouchers, the cost to educate the children would be paid, at least in part, by all of us.
Next consider that private schools don’t have to provide transportation to and from the school. Parents who are unable to transport their child to the private school will, therefore, be unable to make use of the voucher program (for what good is the tuition if the child can’t get to the school). By contrast, I believe that most public schools must provide transportation to all but a limited number of students.
On a similar note, it is very important to recognize that an underlying concept of the benefit of vouchers is built on a bit of a fraud. Proponents argue that vouchers give low income students a chance to attend a private school, a chance that right now is usually limited to children of wealthy families. First, that argument ignores the scholarships already available to low income students from the private schools themselves. More importantly, given that the voucher is not 100% of the cost of tuition (remember, in the case of the proposed bill in Indiana, the limit is $4,500), the family will need to find a way to make up the difference in the tuition funding. Keeping that $4,500 figure in mind (and remember that it is a maximum; many students would qualify for less), consider the following schools and their respective tuitions (information taken from the website for each school on March 2, 2011):
- Park Tudor (8th grade): $16,980
- Brebeuf Jesuit (high school only): $13,500
- St. Luke’s Catholic School (8th grade, non-parishioner): $5,790
- Hasten Hebrew Academy of Indianapolis (8th grade): $8,894
- International School of Indiana (8th grade): $13,250
- Heritage Christian (8th grade): $8,756
I’m sure that there are plenty of other schools and I’m sure that some of them are less expensive (I’d be curious to know what the smaller, less well-known parochial schools charge). But of the six schools that I checked, a low income parent who wanted to send a child to the least expensive school would still have to come out of pocket at least $1,300 (plus find a way to provide transportation to the school). I can’t see any feasible way for a low-income family to afford to send their child to Park Tudor or the International School of Indiana just because they get a voucher from the State of Indiana. How could that working, single mother living downtown pay the additional $12,500 and arrange transportation to the school (keeping in mind how atrocious Indianapolis’ public transportation system is).
We can also look at the issue from a slightly different perspective. Let’s take the hypothetical Columbia School System which has 1,000 students and a budget of $4,500,000 ($4,500 per student). (Note that I’m making up my numbers and used round numbers to keep the example simple; I don’t know what the real numbers are.) Most of the classes in the Columbia School System have 30 kids per class. So Columbia School System has to employ about 34 teachers plus special needs, gym, art, music, and other specialized teachers. Of course, the Columbia School System also has to pay for school buses, administrative expenses (including, perhaps, nurses and guidance counselors), and facilities upkeep. There is also a private school in Columbia: The God Is Great Academy. It has 50 students who each pay $10,000 per year in tuition (for an annual budget of $500,000). The private school has smaller class sizes (say 10 per class room). It doesn’t have any buses and doesn’t have a special needs program. The school is largely staffed by parents who volunteer and the principal is also the assistant pastor at the church that owns the school.
Now, let’s presume that the voucher bill passes and 10 kids decide to leave the Columbia School System and transfer to The God Is Great Academy and let’s presume that each of them is entitled to the full $4,500 full voucher. The Columbia School System has lost $45,000 from its budget, but probably won’t be able to reduce any teaching or administrative positions (a few classes will simply have 29 instead of 30 kids). They’ll still need the special needs teacher and gym teacher and librarian and nurse. So the Columbia School System now has $45,000 less to do virtually the same thing that it was doing before. On the other hand, The God Is Great Academy just gained $45,000 which is a large bump to its budget. And given that the $4,500 per kid that The God Is Great Academy received from the state isn’t enough to cover the full tuition of those kids, the parents will have to kick in another $5,500 each. So, in essence, the budget for The God Is Great Academy increased by $100,000 (20%). After subtracting the cost of a new teacher, there is still a lot of extra money for The God Is Great Academy to do something else with that money (whether buy new football uniforms or hire a full time pastor or buy new books explaining why evolution is wrong). The educational mission of the private school has been significantly enhanced while the situation of the public schools has not changed significantly, other than a reduction in the available funds needed to do virtually the same job. And don’t forget that the kids who were able to leave the public school had the means to do so (whether in terms of the extra tuition or transportation or the academic prowess to be accepted in the first place); however, the public school continues to need to educate special needs students and those who don’t have the means or academic prowess to go to a private school. So, it can be argued that the task of educating students in the public school became just a bit more difficult.
Now, let’s add an extra wrinkle to the previous example. Remember those 50 kids who were already attending The God Is Great Academy? Well, suppose that some of them were also eligible for vouchers (perhaps the families have previously received scholarships through the church). See, that’s one of the things that proponents of vouchers often forget to mention: Many of those who would use a voucher to send their child to a private school are already paying for the child to attend the private school! So if 10 of those 50 kids who were already enrolled were eligible for vouchers, the situation at The God Is Great Academy wouldn’t change at all, but the parents of those 10 kids would see a savings of $4,500 each. Not bad. On the other hand, the budget of Columbia School System (where those 10 kids would have gone if not enrolled in a private school) would be reduced by another $45,000, but this time, there would be absolutely no reduction whatsoever in the student body population or the responsibilities of the school.
And do you suppose that some schools, especially those with lower tuitions, might just use the availability of vouchers to “game” the system and increase the tuition for those using voucher funds so that the full $4,500 is used?
One red herring argument in support of vouchers worth mentioning: Some people argue for vouchers on the basis of “double taxation” (or some similar phraseology). The argument is essentially that parents who send their children to private schools are paying for that school and still paying for the public school that they’re not using. Thus, they contend, they’re being taxed for a service that they’re not using and paying a second time to educate their child. Why is this a red herring? Several reasons. First, it is important to recognize that the parent chose to pay to send the child to a private school. If the parent elected not to pay that tuition, the public school would still be available. Second, by that line of reasoning, people without children or people whose children have finished school should also be exempt from paying taxes that go towards the public schools. But by that reasoning, the blind or illiterate shouldn’t pay taxes that go to libraries, people without drivers licenses shouldn’t pay taxes that go to road repairs or police presence on the roads (i.e., to catch speeders or reckless drivers), people who don’t use public parks shouldn’t pay the taxes for the upkeep of those parks, people whose houses never catch on fire shouldn’t pay for fire protection, people who don’t want the country to enter into a particular war shouldn’t pay taxes to support that war effort, and the list goes on and on and on. Our system of government doesn’t base taxes solely on the services that people use (though we do have special taxes linked to special expenditures like gasoline and cigarettes); rather, we pay taxes to support things that our we — through our elected representatives — deem to be a public good. And given that education has its own article in the Indiana Constitution suggests that Hoosiers certainly view education as a public good. Thus, the argument that some people ought not have to pay to educate other people’s children in public schools is wholly without merit.
I guess, though, that when I step back and look at the whole issue of vouchers, the principal objection that I have goes back to the church-state implications. I have a major concern with my tax dollars being diverted from public education to pay for private faith-based education. That is not what the drafters of either the US Constitution or Indiana’s Constitution had in mind; rather, I believe that they intended precisely the opposite and I think that they would have objected to vouchers and agreed that vouchers run afoul of the language that they created to keep church and state separate.
If you have another reason that you oppose vouchers, let me know. And if you support vouchers, let me know you’re reasoning, too. I know that I’m certainly not an expert in the subject and I’d love to learn more and have the opportunity to discuss (and write about) the subject further.