School Vouchers, Pro and Con: They Are Fair and They Are Practical
Would the widespread use of vouchers improve American education or make it worse? This question is no longer academic or marginal to policy debates; it has moved to center stage with the ongoing national conversation about how to improve public education. In the following essays, two scholars familiar with that debate lay out the arguments for and against vouchers; these are abbreviated versions of the arguments Jerome J. Hanus and Peter W. Cookson Jr. make in their book, Choosing Schools: Vouchers and American Education, published in April by American University Press.
It is the public school's moral culture and not merely a concern with academic quality that underlies the controversy over government subsidization of nonpublic schools. If public schools became first-rate academically, there would still be a demand for private schools. It is the desire to offer one's child a vision of a moral life that may be at variance with that of the culture dominant in the local public school that drives a parent to seek alternative schools, especially nonpublic ones. Today, close to 15 percent of parents with school-age children have voted with their feet (and money) to educate their children in schools where they find the culture more amenable to their moral values. Unless we understand this point we will never comprehend why not providing financial assistance to dissenting parents is a massive social injustice. To correct this injustice, we must confront the arguments that are raised against school choice.
The first argument is that aid to sectarian schools would violate the establishment-of-religion clause of the First Amendment. However, many legal experts believe that there are sufficient U.S. Supreme Court precedents to sustain a comprehensive school-choice plan so long as the destination of the money is specified by the parent and not the school. As long as the tuition voucher becomes the parent's, it is no business of the state to which of several accredited schools the voucher goes. The cases usually invoked as precedents are: Everson v. Board of Education (sustained state reimbursement to parochial-school parents for bus transportation); Mueller v. Allen (upheld the use of state-income-tax deductions for tuition and other expenses); and Zobrest v. Catalina Hills (upheld a publicly paid sign-language interpreter for pupils in a Catholic school). This line of reasoning would also ensure that additional government regulations would not be imposed on the private schools. Just as food stamps (a form of voucher) do not require additional regulations on grocery stores, so school vouchers would not carry with them the regulations that have made public schools much less effective than they could be.
Second, an argument of the teachers' unions is that voucher legislation will lead to the bankruptcy of public schools. However, at most, the value of the voucher would only be the average cost per public school child. If the child does not attend a public school then, of course, the public school would not and should not receive that money. Instead, the money would follow the child and the public schools would be no worse off. Since private school parents already pay school taxes, the only difference would be that they are now participating in the distribution of their tax monies.
A third argument is that nonpublic schools will do so well in meeting the desires of parents for a sound academic and moral education that there will be a mass migration from public to private schools. However,since critics also like to say that private schools really don't do a better job than the public schools, such a migration should not occur. These critics cannot have it both ways: Either public schools are doing well or they aren't. If the latter, then they should fail or else meet the competition. In the latter case, which is the more likely, American education as a whole cannot help but benefit.
We should note that over 20 foreign nations have subsidized sectarian education for many years and have not experienced the dire effects anticipated by American teachers' unions. Readers of Education Week are familiar with most of the above arguments. What they may not be aware of, however, is that expanding the private school sector will immediately benefit teachers. More teachers will be required because the new schools created will be smaller and more collegial. Parents will appreciate that teachers are now responsible for both academics and the character formation of their children and that they are teaching in that particular school because they agree with its moral culture.
Social justice requires that all parents, rich and poor, be able to direct the education of their children according to the dictates of their consciences and not according to those of school bureaucracies. It is time for school vouchers.
Jerome J. Hanus is a professor of government at American University in Washington and the editor of Quarterly Perspectives in Political Science.