America’s Desperate Need for School Vouchers

Published December 1, 2003

One of the objections frequently raised by voucher opponents is that there aren’t enough seats available in private schools, and so private schools would choose the students, rather than parents choosing the schools. Private schools, critics charge, would “pick and choose the best pupils.” However, this is a better description of how the public school system in cities such as Washington DC works right now rather than how vouchers would work.

Under the public school choice program, students assigned to a public school may apply to other public schools. Most of the public schools considered desirable have selective enrollment criteria and thus pick and choose the best pupils. Students who are not picked by these schools are left behind in their assigned school. That is the situation now, without vouchers, in Washington DC, Chicago, and many other major cities.

Vouchers would add hundreds of large and small private schools to the range of options available to students rejected by selective enrollment public schools. These private schools would also provide needed opportunities for students whose transfer requests many school systems have claimed they can’t satisfy. And as Milwaukee’s decade-long experience with vouchers has shown, private schools grow and expand capacity in response to the desire of parents to have better alternative schools in their own neighborhoods. The Milwaukee program has grown so much that the Wisconsin legislature recently passed a bill to lift the 15 percent enrollment cap on voucher schools.

Voucher opponents also claim the public doesn’t want vouchers, pointing out that voucher initiatives have been rejected by voters in the past and opinion polls show broad support for public schools. However, an annual poll widely respected among educators shows support for public schools quickly evaporates when people are offered a full-tuition voucher.

The latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll reveals that only about one in three Americans (35 percent) would send their children to public schools if offered a voucher that would cover the full cost of tuition at a religious or secular private school. Even if the voucher covered only half of the cost of tuition, a majority of Americans still would choose a private school (51 percent) over a public school (47 percent) for their children.

Are vouchers really necessary? A recent report called “Left Behind,” by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago documented the Chicago Public Schools’ poor record of achievement: a 40 percent dropout rate; only 36 percent of high school juniors meeting or exceeding state reading standards; and only 26 percent meeting state math standards. The report proposed creating at least 100 charter schools in inner-city neighborhoods.

The Civic Committee’s proposal failed a traditional Chicago test established by architect Daniel Burnham: “Make no small plans.” Even 100 charter schools, with enrollments of 300-400 students, would provide transfer options for barely 10 percent of the city’s students. In addition, charter schools are increasingly being subjected to the very rules and regulations they were initially freed from to make them alternatives to traditional public schools. By contrast, Milwaukee’s voucher schools have stayed remarkably free of added regulation.

Vouchers would provide public schools with an ongoing challenge to satisfy parents or else lose students. But instead of students just transferring to another public school, the loss of a voucher student would mean the loss of dollars, too. Studies of the voucher programs in Milwaukee and Florida show that vouchers make public schools perform better and become more responsive to parents.

The future of each family–and of our nation–depends on children being equipped with the skills necessary to earn a living, live in a civil society, and sustain the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity. If the public schools aren’t doing this–and there’s plenty of evidence that they aren’t–parents need vouchers to send their children to schools that will.

George A. Clowes is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of School Reform News.