On 2006 Aug 24, Bill Broderick of the Humanist Association of Canada inquired:
How do school vouchers work in the U.S.? They may be coming to Canada.
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Oh, boy, lucky you!
There are 2 possible ways of reading your question:
(1) How do vouchers get instituted in the 1st place?
(2) How well do they function once in place?
To answer Question #1, they get there by means of lies and phony arguments. Common arguments (which I'm sure you'll hear repeated in the months ahead) are that the public schools are failing, parents deserve a choice, the free market is the answer to all our problems, you should be entitled to spend your education dollar wherever you want, private schools perform better than public schools, kids need more discipline, variety is the spice of life, public schools have no morals or values, black (or other minority) kids want their own schools, this is a Christian nation, we get more bang for our buck with the more efficient private schools, and several more that I could probably remember if I spent a little longer at it.
To answer Question #2, mechanically they work OK. In theory, the vouchers should be going to the parents (that's the way the program is invariably sold to the suckers), but the actual physical vouchers are bypassed in favor of just getting summary reports from the schools, based on which the state generates checks that go directly to the schools. (The idea of parents walking around from school to school, vouchers in hands, looking for the best place to educate their kids, is mythology.)
Educationally, the BEST that can be said is that kids going to voucher schools are, in general, not much worse off than if they'd continued going to public schools, based on 2nd-hand data like dropout and pregnancy rates, SAT and ACT scores, and college-admission levels. In general, their GPAs are higher, but that's less likely attributable to increased performance than to lower expectations and grade inflation. The one positive note is that parental satisfaction is higher in the voucher schools.
As a matter of public policy, school vouchers are -- like ALL contracting-out schemes -- masters of obscurity. There is very little public accountability for where public tax dollars are going or how they're being used. Private schools are not required to submit their students to standardized testing, there are no expectations for their curricula, their teachers don't have to be licensed or even qualified, needless to say there are no elections, and they're free to discriminate in hiring and firing of employees as well as with regard to what students they'll take. (In theory, they're prohibited from discriminating among students, but there are a thousand ways of communicating the "You're not our kind" message during the admissions process, and flat-out legal exemptions for handicapped or disruptive kids that they're not equipped to serve.)
All of the foregoing is based on my observations during a 25-year period when I was an analyst for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which got to oversee (to the limited extent permitted by law) the school-voucher "experiment" that was conducted in Milwaukee, our state's largest city (called by some the most segregated city in America).
This program was sold to the public during the administration of Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson (who later became the current President Bush's 1st Secretary of Health and Human Services) on the afore-mentioned basis of being an experiment. The idea was to put to rest, once and for all, the question of whether private schools (comprising 90% parochial schools and 10% proprietary, or for-profit, schools) did indeed outperform public schools. As part of the legislative act authorizing the program, there was an evaluation component. We at the DPI contracted with Dr. Alex Molnar of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee to conduct the evaluation. It was done using rigorous scientific methodology, in which every kid who took advantage of the voucher program was matched with another, closely comparable kid, who stayed in the public school the 1st kid had left behind. At the end of every year, all of the voucher kids and all of the control-group kids had data reported for a wide variety of different educational and social indicators.
Every year, as more and more kids went into the voucher system (the full quota was phased in over a 5-year period), the results came back with an ever more solid foundation in the data. And they demonstrated conclusively that the private schools were in NO WAY better than the public schools and were usually a bit worse (except for the GPAs and parental satisfaction, as mentioned above). They weren't generally terrible, but they sure didn't live up to their advance billing as being the answer to all our problems, either.
So what was the reaction of the Thompson administration, once the 5 years were up, the results were in, and the theoretical basis for having voucher programs in the 1st place had been demolished? They renewed the program without the evaluation component. And this time they made it permanent. And raised the cap on the number of students eigible to participate.
Did I mention that all of the funding for the voucher schools came by taking it out of the state-aid allocation that would otherwise have gone to the Milwaukee Public Schools?
For every success story in the voucher program (like the continuation of Milwaukee Messmer High, a Catholic school that by all accounts was quite good but which was teetering on the brink of closing due to financial problems), there's a counter-example (like the teachers and kids who showed up at their voucher school one morning to find the place locked up, because the state-aid check had come in the previous day and the principal had cashed it and taken off with the money for parts unknown, leaving the public schools to pick up the pieces even tho they didn't have the money to cover it).
Last year Wisconsin's latest Republican governor, Jim Doyle (who ran as and claims to be a Democrat), negotiated a deal with the Republican-dominated Legislature to raise the enrollment cap on the voucher program yet again, in return for which he got some tepid accountability language built into the law that permits some very limited inspections of the voucher schools by DPI personnel and requires them to comply with the same standardized testing requirements that have been in place for the public schools for the last quarter century.
As you can see, the technique used here in Wisconsin is to start small and keep wedging 1st the toe, then the foot, then the entire leg thru the door. The good news is that nobody outside of Milwaukee really wants anything to do with this idea. The bad news is that it keeps getting bigger in Milwaukee, and the public schools there keep getting short-changed.
Part of the reason why the voucher idea hasn't caught on elsewhere in the state is because we adopted the idea of open enrollment. That is, the normal expectation is that kids will attend school in the schools operated by the geographical school district within whose boundaries they reside. But there are a number of reasons why the kids or their parents might not want to do that. The classic illustration is a parent who lives in Community A but commutes 15 miles to work at a business in Community B that happens to be right next door to a pretty good school that her kids could easily attend. There are a flock of other motivations as well, but the bottom line is that allowing kids and parents pretty much open season to choose among any of the PUBLIC schools in their area has greatly diminished the appeal of having PRIVATE schools as an alternative.
OK, I've rambled on way too long here, but ya gotta understand that this was my life for over a quarter of a century, and I'm still very interested in the subject, even tho I'm retired. If there's anything more info I can provide, I'd be happy to do so.