Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Vouchers Are Not About School Choice. Here's How We Know.

The new wave of voucher bills being rammed through red state legislatures all demonstrate a truth about school voucher policies-- vouchers are not about choice. They're about peeling people away from the public school system in order to defund and dismantle that system.

What makes me think so? Here it is. Sometimes it's not about what people say, but about what they don't say.

If the concern were really and truly choice for every student, then voucher fans would be addressing some of the real obstacles to school choice.

This door doesn't lead where they told you it would. 
For one, they would be addressing discriminatory and exclusionary policies. Yet when have we ever heard a voucher supporter say, "These discriminatory policies have to stop. LGBTQ+ students deserve just as much school choice as any other students." 

The closest thing we ever get is "Well, then they can start an LGBTQ-friendly school of their own." Yet when that happens, pro-voucher politicians target that school with terms like "perversion." And of course in some states, such a school can never happen because talking about LGBTQ students or Black history has been outlawed. And voucher laws are written to hold the private school right to discriminate as it wishes inviolable.

If someone were serious about voucher based choice, they would also address cost. Vouchers are typically far too small to pay for tuition to top schools in the state. If voucher supporters were really interested in making sure that, as Jeb Bush says, "each and every...student can access the education of their choice," there would be a robust discussion about how to bridge the gap between meager vouchers and expensive schools.

Yet we never hear voucher advocates saying, "We need to find the way to fully fund vouchers so that they provide a real choice to students." Choice advocates like to point at the inequity of the public system--parent choice is limited by their ability to buy an expensive house in a wealthy neighborhood. But the current crop of voucher programs doesn't change that a bit--a voucher offers little to change the fact that how much "freedom" you get depends on how wealthy you are. 

It has been done. But when Croydon, NH set up a school choice program, a voucher-like system that bore the full cost of sending a student to the school of their choice, local libertarians tried to shut it down because they wanted lower taxes. 

Voucher fans love the idea of school choice; they just don't want to actually pay for it. 

If these folks were serious about school choice via vouchers, we would have calls for oversight and accountability. It would make a choice system that much more attractive for parents to know that all the available options have been vetted and screened and will be held to some standards, just like shopping in a grocery store where you can rest easy in near-certainty that whatever you pick, it's not going to actually poison your family. 

And yet not only do voucher fans not call for oversight and accountability, but they actively block it with language that hammers home that nobody can tell vendors what to do or how to do it.

Voucherphiles like to call their system child-centered, but in fact it is vendor-centered, with "protections" for the service providers written into the law, and protections for the students non-existent. Parents are left to navigate an unregulated system of asymmetrical information that favors the businesses-- not the families.

If we were really talking about school choice, we would be talking about these ideas. Choice advocates would be demanding we talk about them.

But we're not.

Vouchers are not about choice. They're about saying, "I'll give you a couple grand to sign away your rights to a free and appropriate public education." They're about using that deal to get one step closer to Milton Friedman's dream of education being a cost shouldered by parents, not society. In other words, not just privatizing the delivery of education, but also privatizing the responsibility for it. 

It's about not having to pay taxes to educate Those People's Children. If at the same time we can use some taxpayer dollars (collected from Other People) to also further some "Kingdon Gains" and fund some private religious schools (just the Right Ones), that's a win-win. 

I'll end with my usual caveat--there are undoubtedly some folks out there who sincerely believe that vouchers are a good way to a pursue real school choice. Believe it or not, I myself can imagine what a true functional and beneficial school choice system would look like. And it wouldn't look anything like what has been ramming its way through state legislatures in the past few years. 

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