Let’s say you’re a parent and you want to send your child to a private school. If you live in a state with a voucher program, the state will pay that private school a set amount toward your child’s tuition. In most states that have such programs, the voucher is worth somewhere between $3,000 to $4,000, although some pay more. In all likelihood, that’s not enough to cover the full cost of tuition, and you would be responsible for covering the difference.
Supporters of creating a voucher program in North Carolina say it would put educational decisions back in the hands of parents. It’s about parental rights and educational freedom. But there’s a fair amount of research showing that more freedom does not equal a better education for children.
The Education & Law Project of the North Carolina Justice Center put together a piece that looks at various kinds of voucher programs in other states. It found two fundamental problems.
First, disadvantaged students and students with disabilities—those who might benefit from a high-quality private school—often can’t take advantage of vouchers. Low-income parents can’t afford to pay the part of the tuition not covered by the voucher, and they may also lose out on free transportation and free or reduced-price lunch programs if they switch to private schools. And private schools that specialize in meeting the needs of students with disabilities are often prohibitively expensive – even for middle-class families and even with a voucher.
So who uses vouchers? Oftentimes, it’s people who would have sent their children to private school anyway. In addition to not serving those most in need, voucher programs tend to be rife with fraud and abuse by unscrupulous private-school officials.
The second concern about vouchers is that they don’t appear to actually result in better educational outcomes for children. The Education & Law Project report looked at the data for the two longest-running voucher programs in the country – in Milwaukee and Cleveland. Milwaukee established its voucher system in 1990, and the data show that kids in the public school system actually outperform voucher recipients on standardized tests. The same holds true for Cleveland, even though the students in the public school system were more likely to be poor than those receiving vouchers.
North Carolina hasn’t jumped on the voucher bandwagon yet, so we have the chance to learn from other states’ mistakes with such programs. Maybe the mistake is to create a voucher program in the first place.