Questions Concerning School Vouchers

Published January 1, 2003

Question: Would education vouchers solve all of America’s education problems?

Answer: No, but we can’t “fix” education until we “fix” who makes the decisions about education. The people who make the decisions are those who control the money.

Vouchers move us toward marketplace competition and the right of individuals to make choices for themselves and their families. The freedom to enter and exit particular schools must become a right of education consumers, and creating options for students must become a right of educators and entrepreneurs, before schools will begin to reform themselves into more effective institutions of learning.

Question: Would vouchers be a boon for private schools?

Answer: Not necessarily. In a competitive education marketplace, vouchers would cover only the cost of delivering a quality education to students. There would be no windfall profits. Voucher programs operating today in Milwaukee and Cleveland cover less than the amount spent by typical private schools.

Many private schools, particularly non-religious institutions, would quickly accept the vouchers. But vouchers would pose serious dilemmas for others. Admitting students with vouchers means accepting money with strings–strings that have some consequence to particular private institutions. The first “string” would likely be student testing, the second would be an open enrollment requirement.

Question: Would vouchers undermine religious private schools?

Answer: Religious schools are allowed to accept vouchers in Milwaukee and Cleveland and they have not been forced to abandon the religious elements of their curriculum. Of course, curriculum is not the only concern; other key elements of private schooling may be affected by vouchers. That is why it is important that voucher programs be designed differently from city to city and state to state. There is no single right voucher program, just as there is no single right answer to the question.

Some schools would probably accept public money even if it requires that they compromise their religious or academic standards. That is their choice to make. The parties responsible for balancing government requirements for vouchers against a private school’s mission are the school’s governing board and the school’s patrons.

It is not government’s job to keep private institutions from making unwise decisions or to protect them from competition. We have far too much of that “nanny nonsense” now. Should we allow government to continue running an education monopoly because some private schools will make what we consider to be bad decisions?

Comment: Don’t vouchers mean government control of private schools? Doesn’t this mean, in the end, nobody will really have free-market choices?

Response: History does not favor this prediction. Government schools replaced private schools during the nineteenth century by claiming a monopoly on public funding, not by tempting private schools with public funding and then controlling them. The way to restore private schools is to break the government school monopoly on public funding with vouchers.

When the free market has been allowed to operate in other fields, choices spring up all over, often in unusual and unexpected places. Highly motivated people in a free society find ways to meet their needs and the needs of others–even when that means bucking government and the status quo. Vouchers will inspire the same variety of options in education.

Question: Vouchers would leave in place a system of coercive taxation to fund schools, right?

Answer: Yes. But that problem is worse today, when the education decision-makers take our money and then are nearly unreachable and untouchable. It is less of a problem as we move closer toward putting consumers in the driver’s seat.

For the “public good,” this nation mandates education for all children, collects taxes from most every citizen, and enforces the mandate through the pwoer of law. As long as this is the case, parents and children affected by the law must have genuine choices.

Question: Why don’t we just separate the state and school altogether?

Answer: Except for deeding property to communities so they could build schoolhouses, our forebears did not envision government getting involved in the education of children. But here we are, and the question is, where do we go from here?

Many people believe children will turn into uneducated delinquents if government doesn’t assume the responsibility to educate them. They won’t support complete separation of school and state. We recognize this is an elitist attitude, but they do not. Now that civil rights legislation protects equal opportunity, it seems to me we have little to worry about if the private sector assumes more responsibility for educating children.

Question: How can you expect parents to make wise choices about the schools their child attend when most of them don’t even care enough to show up for parent-teacher conferences?

Answer: The high quality and relatively low prices I pay for food are the results of a small percentage of consumers who take the time to be aggressive price shoppers. Grocery stores operate on a small profit margin and cannot afford to lose even 5 percent of their business, so they compete vigorously to provide what their shoppers want. The majority of us, therefore, benefit from the wise choices made by a very small number of people.

Likewise, schools cannot afford to lose even a small percentage of their revenue base. If the money follows the child to the school chosen by his or her parents, and leaves at the same time the child does, the school will respond to deficiencies immediately. This means many children will benefit from the active and conscientious involvement of a relatively small number of parents.

Question: Don’t vouchers violate the separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment?

Answer: What constitution are you reading? The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” Government is not establishing religion when it gives money to parents. It is the parent who will make the decision as to whether the voucher will be used in a religious institution.

The current system of financing schools, not vouchers, violates the First Amendment. Many parents are denied an opportunity to freely exercise their religion because, while the law (and their own conscience) tells them they must educate their children, government schools are prohibited from teaching religion, and many heavily taxed families do not have the economic wherewithal to enroll their children in private schools that conform to their religious beliefs.

Former high school teacher and principal Lynn Harsh is executive director of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington, whose Web site is Her e-mail address is [email protected].