Thursday, January 27, 2011

Op Ed - School Vouchers

This was in The Daily Item on January 26, 2011.

An Economist’s View of School Choice Funding

Matthew C. Rousu

Many political leaders have recently proposed using public money to give “vouchers” to parents who wish to send their children to public schools. Both parties have their proponents, as Democrat Gubernatorial candidate Anthony Hardy Williams, along with Republican Tom Corbett both expressed some support for a voucher system. While there are different ways a voucher program could be implemented, the general idea is that parents would receive a voucher that would either completely or partially offset the costs of sending children to a private school. Many economists, both those who are educators (like me) and those who are not, are among the most ardent supporters of voucher programs. To see why, let’s examine both the benefits and costs of a voucher system.

Benefits of a Voucher System

Under a voucher system, we would expect more private schools to emerge to help offset the increased demand for private education. This competition across schools and parents’ ability to choose their children’s school will force schools to maintain high quality teaching and keep unnecessary costs low.

Another benefit of a voucher system is that currently controversial issues no longer become controversial – like whether to allow prayer in school and mandatory school testing. Some families want prayer in school, while others do not. As a voucher system becomes more widespread, this won’t be a concern anymore. If you want your child to pray every day before classes, you can send him or her to a school that implements prayer. If you do not – you can choose that option.

Every critic of the testing involved in the No Child Left Behind law should consider supporting voucher plans, as government-imposed school testing could be abolished if a voucher system is enacted. The current rationale for mandatory testing is that schools need to be accountable for their performance. Under a voucher system, schools would be much more accountable. Parents can remove their kids from one school and send them elsewhere at any point. If parents demand a school uses mandatory testing, they could, or the school could prove their worth to parents in other ways.

Costs of a Voucher System – Perceived and Actual

One commonly cited drawback by opponents of voucher plans is that vouchers would violate the separation of church and state. In fact, a well-designed voucher plan would do the opposite. The current plan is forcing all parents into a “one-size-fits-all” type of school. If you think it is wrong that your tax dollars go to a school that holds no organized prayers – you have no recourse. You either pay double by sending your child to a private school or you accept the government’s restrictions. Under a voucher plan, however, parents could choose whether to send their child to a school that requires prayer or not – and could choose a school for their particular religion, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. The government in no way would be promoting one religion over another under a voucher plan.

The costs of voucher plans are a more reasonable objection. In the shorter-term, when transitioning away from the state-controlled school system, there would likely be an increase in costs. However, these transitional costs should start to disappear over time and eventually a voucher system should cost less once a full market system is up-and-running.

Let the Market System Work for Education

Colleges and Universities in the United States are the envy of the world, while primary and secondary schools are not. One likely reason is that there is real market competition across colleges and universities for students, but not for grades K-12. By allowing a voucher system, parents could expect greater quality education for lower costs. Also, parents will have more input on the values it wants the schools to (help) teach their children. It won’t be an instant fix for all of our education problems, but implementing a voucher system is a step in the right direction.

The author is an associate professor of economics at Susquehanna University. The views here do not necessarily represent those of Susquehanna University.

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