Why Vouchers Will Probably Expand

Jay Matthews, who does a great job of covering education issues for the Washington Post, recently posted an article questioning the applicability of the D.C. school voucher program.  The article largely misses the real issues underlying the voucher movement, however.

For a better view of Mr. Matthews’ opinion on vouchers, you should read the op-ed that he links to at the end of this article.  It refers to his “internally inconsistent view that there is nothing wrong with vouchers, but they are too politically poisonous to help many kids.”

There is a lot that can be said in defense of vouchers, we do after all base the GI Bill on them, but I will only make four points.  First, the article that Mr. Matthews cites contains many positive points about the D.C. voucher program, including that more than half attend Catholic schools. It sites three schools that might be marginal, but interviews only one parent about why they presumably think that the private school is better for their children than the public alternative.  The answers might indicate that even in a sub average private school, most students receive a better overall education.

Second, the only inherent difference between public schools and private schools is in who owns the equity and it is not clear why we should care about this.  Both types of ownership structure have to pay for the full marginal and capital costs of educating students.  Public schools pay for the use of capital through interest on the bonds they issue.  Private schools pay for it the same way or, if they are for-profit institutions, by earning an excess of revenue over costs that compensates shareholders for the use of their capital and for the risk of uncertain returns.  The state could make both operate under the same set of laws if it wanted to.  But if this works both ways.  It implies that a public school should face the same standards and sanctions that private schools face.  I care less about the specific standards the state imposes, as long as it imposes it without favoring public schools.  Too often, however, public schools are allowed to remain open long after any similar private institution would have been closed.

Third, there would not be a strong voucher movement if most schools were providing a safe, quality education that also stressed values.  But they are not, they have not for a long time, and there is little prospect that they will.  The article upon which Mr. Matthews’ comments states that D.C. spends an average of $18,000 per student each year.  The voucher for a high-school student is $12,000.  Even if vouchers did no better at educating kids, they would still be 33 percent more efficient.  For that reason they can be expanded over time to include all students.  My prediction is that they will unless public schools finally improve the performance of the schools at the bottom.

Finally, it is somewhat odd that vouchers are widely accepted for the GI bill, housing and food stamps but fiercely resisted for primary and secondary education. The main reason is that vouchers in K-12 education represent an alternative to a well-entrenched set of providers who have no incentive to make it easier for parents and students to bypass them.  Yet there is little real prospect of improving the quality of education that our worst institutions offer.  If they could reform, they would have long ago.  Once a district accepts charter schools, there is no logical reason to oppose vouchers.  The only real debate beyond that point should be about the rules that schools ought to follow in order to be eligible to accept vouchers.

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