• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 1999
Public education in the United States evolved differently than public school systems in other countries. Education in many nations was limited to those with money, involved subsidized public schools at minimal levels, or evolved as meritocracies where only the most able students were afforded educational opportunities above a minimal literacy level.
The United States experienced the evolution of a very different tradition where universal, publicly-funded education came to be considered as the foundation for creating and sustaining a democratic society. If all members of the society were to participate in the democratic process, related to self governance, literacy and basic education were essential characteristics to be universally nurtured in the people.
Education was left as a primary responsibility of the states, and most states incorporated those responsibilities in their state constitutions. Thus, education in this country evolved not as an individual responsibility, but one reserved for state governments.
Over time, states decentralized these responsibilities by delegating some authority to local communities. An underlying assumption of community- and neighborhood-based schools was that the opportunity for students and families to interact and converge in a public forum would strengthen the social fabric.
This sharing of a common experience among diverse pupils, coupled with a community-wide ownership of these institutions, was seen as reinforcing our basic concepts of equality and the importance of nurturing opportunities for advancement by providing universal education for all in a common setting. It also nurtured the concept of civic responsibility when state and community resources were pooled for the greater good of all.
Vouchers, in turn, represent a radical departure from these democratic traditions. Rather than being concerned with principals of democracy and educational opportunity, they are based on assumptions of individual benefit, profit and economic theory.
The Purpose of Vouchers
Key voucher proponents have stated that their ultimate objective is to eventually reallocate public tax monies from existing neighborhood schools to private, non-public educational providers (Nazareno and Cisneros-Lunsford, 1998). At the national level, the originators of the voucher idea never perceived it as a simple experiment to encourage public schools to improve. In their eyes, vouchers were a fundamental shift in the ways that public education was funded and a means of totally restructuring how education was organized and supported throughout the country.
In contrast to the century-old concept of a neighborhood institution where members of all levels of a community pooled their resources and came together to subsidize the education of local youth, original voucher proponents would change the focus from funding neighborhood schools to providing funds for individuals to “shop” for education wherever they desired.
At the core of the voucher idea, originally, was the notion that education should be converted to a free enterprise effort, like a business. As businesses, educational institutions would be forced to compete for clients. Those who competed unsuccessfully would fold up and disappear as do unsuccessful businesses. Schools could set up anywhere and use whatever means necessary to attract potential customers.
Among voucher proponents there was no concern with public accountability or the impact of diverting already limited resources from students who remain in the public school system. They believed that customer satisfaction with products would be the ultimate accountability.
Likewise, there was no thought given to equity or student accessibility issues. If some schools that accept vouchers required parents to pay money over and above the voucher-funded levels, that was OK. If some students could not afford to pay for those extra costs, they could go to cheaper, lower quality providers.
Similarly, voucher proponents were not concerned about whether vouchers – and voucher supported pupils – would be accepted by all schools. In fact, as business persons, they would say schools should have the prerogative to serve (or refuse to serve) whomever they chose.
The notion that vouchers would expand opportunities for low-income families and provide incentives for public schools to improve came along decades later. Faced with strong opposition to the dismantling of neighborhood-based publicly-supported schooling, voucher proponents essentially re-packaged their market-driven model in order to make it more politically palatable and seemingly less “anti-democratic” by appealing to more altruistic ideals. Training materials for promoting voucher programs even coached proponents to downplay free market notions and to use minority and low-income arguments to neutralize opposition from certain sectors (Nathan, 1999). Despite the carefully crafted veneer, vouchers are ultimately designed to serve as a replacement to the way schools in this country are structured, organized and financed.
Origins of the School Voucher Ruse
Much of the original impetus for replacing the traditional U.S. public school funding model with school vouchers, dates back to the work of economist Milton Friedman who first proposed the concept in the 1950s. Friedman proposed that “every family be given a voucher of equal worth for each child attending school” (Lowe, 1991). He contended that such an approach would provide parents more options. His simple idea found little support in that era partly because most Americans were generally satisfied with the performance of the existing system (even as later research demonstrated that public schools had historically ill-served minorities and students who were poor or limited-English-proficient).
The idea of vouchers resurfaced in the late 1970s with John E. Coons and Stephan D. Sugarman. The two were early proponents of school finance equalization through public funding reform but abandoned that strategy in favor of an alternative that they perceived as having greater public appeal. In Education by Choice: The Case for Family Control, Coons and Sugarman argue for allocating public money to families (parents) who then get schooling alternatives.
The Coons-Sugarman arguments spawned an attempt in California to redirect public monies away from coventional school funding to educational vouchers via public referendum. The attempt was defeated by California voters in 1992.
The concept of providing vouchers in lieu of supporting a system of free public schools was reintroduced in 1990 with the publishing of Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools by another set of economists, John Chubb and Terry Mow. The authors present the argument that free market approaches (or privatizing public education) is the “best” means of improving education. The publication struck a chord among conservatives who felt they were losing their long-standing control over school operations.
The voucher funding mechanism also appealed to some reform advocates who were frustrated with the unresponsiveness and ineffectiveness of some of the states’ urban schools. In contrast to earlier efforts however, the proponents of vouchers argued in a variety of new forms, the centerpiece being one of providing “choice” for students and parents depicted as having little or no options. The recasting of the public policy debate as one involving “parent choice” over a child’s education (rather than as providing vouchers to support public funding of private schooling) significantly altered the dynamics and eventually the alignments of those involved in promoting educational reform.
Writing for The American School Board Journal, Judith Brody Saks states that “the real fight is over how many of those dollars the private sector will get” (1997).
Private school vouchers take the focus away from increasing funds and resources for public schools that are accountable to all of us. Instead, they focus favor on spending public monies for private purposes with no accountability to the taxpayer and no mandate – and in some cases no desire – to educate all children.
Publicly funded vouchers are in fact taxation without representation. “School choice” is choice for schools. It provides no choice for parents, particularly not for poor parents, their children or their communities. Public funding should focus on improving public education instead of using public money on private school businesses. America needs all of its children to be educated, not just a select few.
Chubb, J. and T. Mow. Politics, Markets and America’s Schools (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1990).
Coons, J.E. and S.D. Sugarman. Education by Choice: The Case for Family Control (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978).
Cortez, A. “Full Pockets, Empty Promises,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 1998).
Lowe, R. and B. Miner (Eds). False Choices, Why School Vouchers Threaten Our Children’s Future (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Rethinking Schools, 1992).
Nathan, D. “Saint Sickbed,” The Texas Observer (January 22, 1997).
Nazareno, A. and A. Cisneros-Lunsford. “Voucher Plan Drawing Critics,” San Antonio Express-News (April 25, 1998).
Robledo Montecel, M. “School Choice: Choices for Whom? Promises and Panaceas,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 1994).
Saks, J.B. “The Voucher Debate,” The American School Board Journal (March 1997).
Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1999 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]