Opinion
School Choice & Charters Commentary

Four Reasons Why Voucher Plans Lose Elections

By David Barulich — September 06, 2000 8 min read
Voucher advocates must stop focusing on vouchers and private schools and start focusing on individual students.

A popular definition of insanity is repeating the same action and continuing to expect a different result. Voucher proponents in California and Michigan will create doubts about their political sanity as they press ahead with initiative campaigns doomed to certain defeat this November, repeating mistakes made in Washington state, Oregon, and Colorado, as well as California.

In 1993, I spent countless hours campaigning in favor of the earlier California voucher initiative, which was crushed in a 70 percent to 30 percent landslide. I debated trained opponents on television and radio and in assembly rooms. But my most difficult encounters were casual conversations in living rooms with white, middle- to upper-class conservative voters (hereinafter called skeptics) who expressed deep reservations about vouchers. This was especially disheartening because these skeptics did not make arguments based on our opponents’ messages. After several fruitless arguments with these skeptics, I realized that no voucher or tuition-tax-credit plan could win a statewide election until four major problems could be solved:

  • Incompetent Parents. The central tenet of any voucher (or tuition-tax-credit) proposal is that parents will make wise choices for their own children. The skeptics believe, however, that a significant number of parents cannot be trusted to make intelligent choices with public funds. After all, these are the same voters who recoil at the thought of teenage mothers, high school dropouts, and drug abusers receiving welfare that subsidizes irresponsible personal behavior. “Why,” they asked, “should we trust these parents to make smart decisions for others when they cannot even manage their own lives?”

Skeptics resent the idea that private schools receiving tax dollars should be able to play by a set of rules different from that of public schools. Voucher advocates fail to make any headway arguing about the wisdom of matching students with schools sharing the same mission, reducing government regulations, and increasing competition. The skeptics assume that good parents and students will adapt to the public school system. The skeptics aren’t interested in making public schools operate more like private schools.

The skeptics (and most public school teachers) believe that parents who are not involved in their children’s education are responsible for the decay in many urban school districts. Where voucher advocates see a failing public school system, the skeptics see parents who are failing the public schools.

  • Pitting Public vs. Private Schools. Skeptics believe that public schools are inherently good American institutions. They believe that parents and students are obligated to adapt to the public school system. In contrast, voucher advocates believe that only the public schools that successfully educate students are good. This explains why voucher advocates boast about closing ineffective public schools, and then they cannot comprehend why anyone but greedy teachers and school administrators should be upset.

Among the skeptics, there is a strong undercurrent of antipathy toward private schools. The skeptics have a nostalgic attachment to the ideals of public schools as institutions embodying American virtues. While they respect the excellence and concede the academic superiority of private schools, their gut instinct is that genuine Americans go to public schools. Amazingly, parents who sent their own children to private schools frequently expressed this sentiment. Often during debates, they apologized for not enrolling their own children in public schools!

  • Unfair Playing Field. Skeptics resent the idea that private schools receiving tax dollars should be able to play by a set of rules different from that of public schools. Voucher advocates fail to make any headway arguing about the wisdom of matching students with schools sharing the same mission, reducing government regulations, and increasing competition. The skeptics assume that good parents and students will adapt to the public school system. The skeptics aren’t interested in making public schools operate more like private schools.
  • Deviant Schools. Skeptics do not want taxpayer dollars to support witches’ covens or schools with pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeini on the walls. Voucher advocates say that very few parents would attend such schools. But skeptics with a dim view of many public school parents are not persuaded by these assurances.

Does all of this mean that an electoral victory for private school choice is improbable? No. It simply means that voucher plans are the wrong vehicle for driving the private-school-choice bandwagon.

To win the hearts and minds of skeptics, voucher advocates must stop focusing on vouchers and private schools and start focusing on individual students. They can accomplish this by abandoning voucher programs and replacing them with “scholastic achievement grants,” or SAGs. The basic premise of such grants is that a state-run program of private school choice should disburse money only on the basis of academic performance outside of public schools, instead of seat time in private schools.


Omitting details about dollar amounts, recipient qualifications, special education testing, and other issues, the following is a rough sketch of how a scholastic-achievement-grant program would work:

The state would develop criterion-referenced examinations to measure what students are expected to learn at each grade level in public schools. Public school officials would set a minimum passing score for exams in different subjects at each grade level, depending upon the actual performance of students who are promoted one grade level in public schools. The state could test all public school students (or a representative, random sample of the public school population) to ascertain the minimum scores achieved by public school students who receive grade-level promotion.

It is possible to oppose vouchers and tuition tax credits yet still favor government aid for private school choice.

Once the state had established the minimum scores for each grade-level exam, children not enrolled in public schools could take the exams. If they received a passing score achieved by students of similar age attending public schools, the state would pay the scholastic achievement grant directly to the students’ parents. In subsequent years, grant recipients would have to exceed their exam scores from the prior year, in addition to receiving passing scores for their grade level.

Low-income families could receive their SAG funds in advance of the examinations in the form of loans. Their children could be tested during the school year to ensure continuing academic progress before more loan funds were extended. When those children passed the exams, the scholastic achievement grant would automatically repay the loans.

Scholastic achievement grants appeal to the conservative values of skeptics. SAGs pay for educational achievement; vouchers pay for seat time in classrooms. SAGs are earned; vouchers are welfare entitlements. Parents applying for SAGs have a direct financial incentive to get involved in their children’s education. Parents directing vouchers to private schools risk nothing if they fail to get involved in their children’s education.

Here is a summary of why scholastic achievement grants address the concerns skeptics harbor toward voucher programs:

  • Incompetent Parents: A SAG program doesn’t rely on the competence and virtue of parents to ensure that tax dollars are not wasted. It relies on evidence from state-administered exams, and it uses financial incentives to motivate parental involvement in education.
  • Unfair Playing Field: Parents applying for SAGs receive tax dollars under more stringent conditions of accountability than those for public schools. These parents receive money when their children demonstrate a minimum level of academic achievement. Public schools receive tax dollars whether or not every student is learning.
  • Pitting Public vs. Private Schools: SAG students have to submit to the same examinations as public school students. Voters will focus their attention on the outputs of public education and the types of educational programs that could most efficiently achieve a public purpose, instead of debating whether private schools are superior to public schools.
  • Deviant Schools: Not one nickel of state money would be paid to a private school under a SAG program. Students earn the grant for their parents by fulfilling a public purpose—learning the required amount of subject matter taught in public schools. Once the SAG money is paid, parents can spend it like the salary earned by a public school teacher. Therefore, SAG parents do not threaten civic harmony any more than state employees, private contractors, or Social Security recipients who contribute to “deviant” institutions using their state-funded earnings.

Until the school choice movement understands that it is possible to oppose vouchers and tuition tax credits yet still favor government aid for private school choice, it will continue to suffer electoral defeats. It will continue to settle for small legislative victories for limited programs like those in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida. Scholastic achievement grants would provide an escape outside the electoral box that has limited the appeal of voucher and tuition-tax-credit plans.

The sooner the school choice movement dumps vouchers and tax credits as flawed vehicles for a good idea, the sooner we can offer more interesting debates and more closely contested elections for education reform.


David Barulich, an education policy consultant in Los Angeles, served as the director of research for Proposition 174, California’s 1993 voucher-initiative campaign.


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