School Choice

The Case Against Education Vouchers


An ever more popular idea is the idea of government financing of private education. In the present controversy on the merits of government financing of private education, the advocates have often failed to consider adequately the consequences of such financing. It is the purpose of this paper to consider what the application of tax funds to private education might entail.

The precedents allowing government funding of private education have been established in a number of Supreme Court decisions. In the major cases. Quick Bear vs. Leupp1 allowed federal funds to be applied to salaries and maintenance of a parochial school. Everson vs. Board of Education, upheld state provision of textbooks to students in religious schools.

The most recent push for public support of non-public education is in the form of educational vouchers (state support provided to parents for use in purchasing education for their children). Education vouchers are favored over tax credits (a credit for the student's education against the parent's tax liability) for two reasons: first, the tax credit is not available to the poor to the same extent it is to the more affluent; second, with taxes being due at a different time from tuition, a tax credit might create a cash flow problem. These arguments against the tax credit and a fairly comprehensive case for education vouchers have been presented in a report entitled Education Vouchers and published in March 1970 by the Center for the Study of Public Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This report, dealing with the most pronounced objections to voucher payments, is by no means the first effort to advance a proposal for government financing of education by channeling money to the parents. Some 200 years ago, the classical economist Adam Smith wanted the government to give parents the money to hire teachers, and for the last fifteen years, Dr. Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago, a leading voucher advocate, has attempted to popularize the argument.

The efforts have succeeded, and, as recently as May 1970, the Office of Economic Opportunity announced that the scheme would be tried.

In the initial attempt, the first step is the establishment of an Educational Voucher Agency in a chosen community. This agency, instead of the school board, will receive the federal, state, and local tax money for the financing of the education of all the children in the community. The Agency will dispense these funds in the form of a voucher to the parent, who, in order to redeem it, will necessarily have to take it to a school which meets the basic eligibility requirements. An important question, obviously, arises as to who will determine these eligibility requirements.

In this experiment, OEO is "contemplating [among other regulations] extremely stringent controls placed on participating schools' admissions policies and also on tuition charges." The admissions policy being considered would require participating schools with more openings than applicants to admit all applicants, and schools with more applicants than openings to admit a certain percentage of their students, say fifty, randomly. The control on tuition charges also being considered would not allow a school to charge tuition in addition to the voucher amount. "At the same time, it is hoped that minimal restraints will be placed on the schools' staffing practices and programs."4 From this, it would be safe to say that federal direction, if not control, of education activities is possible and can be anticipated.

The lesson that history teaches of government intervention is one of caution and forewarning. It makes little difference whether the Federal government supplies 6.4 percent of the public school support, as claimed by the National Education Association, or a much larger percentage. The precedent has been established and reasserted again and again—"it is hardly lack of due process for the government to regulate that which it subsidizes."5

In addition to this degree of federal regulation, one can safely predict a certain amount of state regulation. In Connecticut for example, some of the restrictions on the non-public schools receiving state aid are: 1) teacher certification—all teachers must be certified by the State Board of Education within three years; 2) textbook standardization—all textbooks must meet the same standard as the public school's texts; 3) all non-public schools must be approved by the State Secretary of Public Education as complying with regulations making the educational standards the same as those applying to public schools (Sec. 10-220 of the General Statutes); 4) all schools must be nonprofit; 5) all schools must have open enrollment, meaning admissions to any qualified student; 6) and, of course, all schools must comply with a secular education (teaching that may "indoctrinate, promote, or prefer a religious or denominational tenet and doctrine") restriction.

The extent to which these or similar state restrictions coupled with Federal regulations erode the independence of the school which becomes a non-public voucher payment recipient should be carefully examined.

First, if a non-public school has a policy of employing teachers from candidates with degrees in the subject matter to be taught, then, in order to receive the voucher, the school must accept the state's emphasis on training over its preference for knowledge and depth in subject matter.

Second, textbook standardization is an important loss of freedom to the school that desires to remain independent. Christopher Jencks, a familiar name in the voucher dispute and an Associate Professor of Education at the Harvard School of Education, refers to "teaching and learning as a subtle process that resists all attempts at improvement by formal regulation."

Extensive interference into these similar critical areas of teacher and textbook selection is cause for deep concern. Not only is the school subject to current standards, but also to any future whims of those deciding educational policy. As the voucher argument is premised, the possibility of being more competitive depends upon the option to be different. Without difference, there is, of course, no competition. Excluding those teachers who do not have certain credentials, no matter how well grounded they are in the subject matter or how capable they are at teaching students, narrows the range of choice and effectively reduces competition. Limiting the material available to teachers, no matter how worthy of the students' consideration it may be, also precludes competition.

Third, not being allowed to operate as a proprietary school is a point that many private schools, and certainly, all proprietary schools may not wish to concede. A U.S. District Court decision (Marjorie Webster Junior College, Inc. vs. the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, Inc.) may have effectively guaranteed schools the option of being non-profit or proprietary; however, that decision has been reversed by a higher court and to many the issue is, at this time, still considered unresolved.

Fourth, between the states' open enrollment policy and the Federal Government's open admissions policy, the strongest and primary argument for vouchers (i.e., reduce the suppression of government's monopoly and open the schools to competition) seems lost.

The necessity of each school to compete with other schools for the favor of the parent-child combination is an attractive idea. To have a flow of customers into each school determined by that school's ability to offer a program that most nearly meets the demands and desires of the parent and child is an argument that has understandably won much support for the voucher. But if this flow is to be regulated, the competitive element is neutralized, and regulation will predictably result in more of the same stagnation that hinders schools today.

Not to be overlooked is the Federal Government's regulation of tuition charges. Schools are compelled to charge the voucher amount although some schools may wish to charge more than allowed so they can offer more than their competitor, and some parents may wish to supplement the amount of the voucher with their own funds in order to have their children receive more. Here again, regulation will result in the leveling and equalizing of all school offerings, and with the vital competitive element being smothered, generally all tuition can be expected to rise.

Fifth, pleasing the State Secretary or Superintendent of Public Education could conceivably place the school more at the mercy of the politician than under the influence of the educator.

All of these areas of State Government control are not unique to Connecticut. At the time of the publication of Education Vouchers, three other schools had adopted programs of state aid to private education. Of these four (Connecticut, Ohio,7 Pennsylvania,8 and Rhode Island9) all required teacher certification, textbook standardization, disclosure of accounting and/or financial records, compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Article 7 of Executive Directive No. 21, and secular education restrictions.

Connecticut, Ohio, and Rhode Island specified that materials used must be equivalent to materials used in public schools, and Ohio further specified that "materials and programs cannot exceed in cost or quality such services as are provided by the public schools." Connecticut and Rhode Island disallowed the receipt of tax monies by other than non-profit schools. This list of restrictions is not comprehensive. Many other restrictions were included in the legislation passed in these four states, and still other restrictions are proposed in states that have state aid to private education legislation pending.

There is every reason to expect such regulation in voucher programs. The proponents of vouchers believe them to be a "foot-in-the-door," "a step in the right direction." The opponents, unable to rebut the arguments for more competition and greater parental interest, resist on the grounds of not wishing to fund an unregulated program. Predictably, the results will be a compromise, and if the OEO experiment is a representative indication, the compromise will result in a voucher system with "extremely stringent controls," one that will satisfy neither side.

Christopher Jencks recognizes the possibility of a regulating agency evolving into a political force strong enough to result in a "regulatory system as complex and detailed as that now governing the public schools…they (the schools receiving the vouchers) would probably end up indistinguishable from existing public schools." Commenting on the consequences should such a possibility materialize, he casually states, "nothing would have changed either for better or for worse." Unfortunately, Professor Jencks overlooks a most important factor—independent schools will have lost their independence.

1. 210 U.S. 50(1905)
2. 330 U.S. 1 (1947)
3. 392 U.S. 236 (1968)
4. Jencks, Christopher, "Education Vouchers," The New Republic, 4 July 1970.
5. Wichard vs. Filburn, 317 U.S. Ill (1942), p. 131.
6. Public Act No. 791—Voucher Payment, Effective 1 July 1969.
7. Ohio Rev. Code Ann.—S. 3317.06 (Baldwin-1969)
8. Pennsylvania State Ann.—Tit. 24, SS 560I-09 (1968)
9. Rhode Island General Laws Ann.—S 16-51 (1969)