The Case for School Vouchers

Why choice should trump coercion.


If you were planning to pull any practical jokes on Lily Eskelen Garcia or Bob Farrace, you might want to hold off. They're probably not in the mood for it.

Garcia is president of the National Education Association. Farrace is a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. They recently were quoted about Nevada's passage of a school-choice measure, which allows families opting out of the public education system to send their kids' share of per-pupil spending to whatever school they choose.

Garcia says this leaves her "terrified" because so many states (27 at last count) "have bought into this very dangerous idea that school is a commodity." Farrace warns that "funneling public funds to private schools means fewer teachers, fewer counselors, fewer supplemental services and, in general, fewer opportunities for the vast majority of kids who remain in public schools. It really violates the public trust when policymakers place individual benefit before the public good."

These are standard talking points in the school-choice debate—and rather misleading ones. At worst, voucher programs can leave public schools with slightly less money to spend per remaining pupil. But in fact they usually leave the schools with more, because most vouchers offer less than the state's per-pupil expenditure. For example, if 10 students each leave a school with an 80 percent voucher, then the school has 10 fewer students but loses only eight students' worth of funding. Meanwhile, the state is spending only 80 percent of what it otherwise would have on the voucher students.

Granted, this math doesn't work if all the kids who use vouchers would have gone to private school anyway. But the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that's almost never the case. Usually only 10 percent to 15 percent of voucher recipients fall into that category, and half of them would go back to the public schools without a voucher. Hence Florida's tax-credit scholarship program has saved the state more than $1.40 for every voucher dollar, amounting to a savings of nearly $40 million a year. Milwaukee's school-choice program has produced even bigger savings.

So the complaint about siphoning off resources from the public schools misses its mark. But what the heck, let's be sporting and assume for the sake of argument that it's true. In that case, one reasonable response might be: So what?

After all, what is a school voucher but a kind of Obamacare subsidy?

Obamacare's subsidies make private medical care accessible to their recipients. With it, they can choose from among a variety of approved providers—just like those who use school vouchers. The NEA, which supports Obamacare, certainly doesn't consider this "dangerous." Nor does it fret that offering people a range of choices among health care providers commoditizes medicine. Nor, evidently, do public-education advocates think Obamacare's limited freedom of consumer choice places "individual benefit before the public good." After all, the public good is served when people get medical care—not when they get it through one particular source only.

Granted, while health care reform was being debated the NEA said it "strongly supports a public health care option." Guess what? School voucher programs include a public option, too—existing public schools. Nobody is forced to use a voucher. That means a school voucher program resembles precisely the public-private hybrid arrangement the NEA sought for health care.

But what the teachers unions fought to pass in health care, they fight against in education. Go figure.

Critics of vouchers always warn about the dangers of giving parents more options: private schools with low standards, lousy curricula, "abhorrent discipline policies," and so on—as if we didn't read about similar problems in the public schools every day. They don't bother to mention that public-school teachers send their own kids to private schools at twice the rate the general public does—and, in some places, three to four times the rate.

The current education model, meanwhile, is nothing like Obamacare. It's not like Obamacare with a public option. It's not even like a single-payer system, such as a Medicare-for-all program would be. Rather, it's the equivalent of a state-run system in which the vast majority of the public is consigned to a government-run hospital or clinic, while the rich buy their way out.

But imagine for a moment that America's education system did resemble Obamacare. In each case, consumers chose from a wide array of private providers, along with a couple of public ones, and the government guaranteed financial support for those who couldn't pay. Now imagine someone coming along and suggesting that we scrap the entire free-choice system and herd everyone, except the very rich, into state schools and hospitals managed and run by government bureaucrats.

How many people would be willing to make that switch?