School Vouchers And Other Forms Of Choice

School vouchers is an idea I’ve supported ever since I first read Capitalism and Freedom in 1989. It’s an idea so simple, and sound, that it’s a wonder it hasn’t been embraced. Yet here we are, forty-six years after CaF was published and choice hasn’t caught on (except when dismembering a fetus) and is even reviled by most of the American public (I can’t find the source, but a few days ago I read that close to 60% are against vouchers, no doubt reflecting teachers’ unions’ well-funded opposition).

In fact, people in Washington D.C., like House Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton are trying to strangle a pilot program in its crib:

On Tuesday, a House Appropriations subcommittee is set to take up provisions in President Bush’s budget for $18 million to continue the five-year-old D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program for next year. It is part of an unprecedented $74 million earmarked for education in the District. In April, Mr. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray appeared before the House subcommittee on financial services and general government to speak in support of the initiative, which gives low-income students scholarships to attend private schools. Ms. Norton is not a member of that subcommittee, but she made a special appearance to attack the program.

Even worse, as The Post’s Valerie Strauss and Bill Turque reported Monday, it now turns out that Ms. Norton is preparing a plan that could end the program after just one more year. Ms. Norton won’t discuss her plan, and she would, rather disingenuously, have the public believe that she is acting only to ensure an orderly transition of students from a program doomed because of the opposition of others in her party. But, at best, by refusing to support the mayor, she is helping to doom a program that gives poor parents an opportunity that others in this country take for granted: the chance to choose a decent school for their children.

For parents such as Patricia William, that means the probable loss of an educational opportunity that has transformed her 11-year-old son. Ms. William is not alone in her praise of the program and in her panic about the possibility of its demise. The voucher pilot is intended to measure and compare children’s progress in private schools over a span of several years. But one result already is known: Poor parents do not want their children automatically consigned to failing schools any more than middle-class parents would. Talk to parents and grandparents of children afforded what should not be the luxury of choice and you’ll hear stories of thanks and success — stories of young women such as Tiffany Dunston, this year’s valedictorian at Archbishop Carroll High School. Ms. Norton turned a deaf ear to these accounts during a recent meeting, dismissing the scholarship families as “befuddled.” Catherine Hill, whose grandson graduated from the Academy for Ideal Education, told us that the only thing the group doesn’t understand is why Ms. Norton “hates a program that works so well.” (Her response to this editorial is here.)

The depth of the opposition to school choice has convinced me that a new approach is needed, though my proposal is a long shot at best. It is modeled on welfare reform and would involve breaking up the Department of Education and releasing the money to the states as performance-based block grants.

For instance, the almost $60 billion dollars in discretionary spending that was used to fund the DoEd this year could be allocated among the states and each individual block grant could be broken into thirds: one-third for construction of schools, purchase of books and computers; one-third for augmenting teacher pay; and, one-third for performance improvements. The data collection functions of the DoEd could be moved to Health and Human Services, along with administration of the block grants.

Whatever happens, something different needs to be done. Inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending on education has more than tripled since the mid-1960s and we have very little to show for it. Time to try something new.

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Robert Prather
About Robert Prather
Robert Prather contributed over 80 posts to OTB between October 2005 and July 2013. He previously blogged at the now defunct Insults Unpunished. Follow him on Twitter @RobPrather.


  1. DL says:

    The best voucher of all is to return education to the local levels where parents can control what and how things are taught. What page in the constitution has given the federal power brokers the right to control education (and children’s minds)?

  2. Scott Swank says:

    While I see the utility of school vouchers in a vaccuum, here are the problems that they cause in our current environment.

    1. They help the well-to-do attend expensive private schools.

    2. They help the less-well-off attend parochial schools.

    3. They leave public schools unsustainably funded compared with current attendance, and hence result in school closings. This moves public schools further and further apart, resulting in a greater disconnect between the local population and the attending student body.

    While 1 & 2 are both attractive to their respective wings of the GOP they are anathema to a secular, pluralist worldview. And 3 is only attractive to folk who want to kill public schools on principal, predominately libertarians. You are giving people the option of being: wealthy, religious or screwed. You’ll forgive me if I consider that to be a lovely restatment of the post-Contract-on-America GOP worldview.

  3. brainy435 says:

    Scotts bigoted “secular, pluralist worldview” would trap children in failing school systems rather than see them exposed to any kind of religion in a decent school. So he’s giving them the option of being wealthy, indoctrinated or screwed. You’ll forgive me if I consider that to be a lovely restatment of the irrational, corrupt liberal worldview.

    Exactly how, if the amount of money spent per pupil is made portable, would vouchers decrease the quality of public schooling, assuming such a thing were possible? The funding would be the same per pupil. So public schools may have to consolidate. God forbid.

  4. DL,

    I sort of agree with you, though I’m not a big fan of teaching creationism, which would undoubtedly happen if you got your wish. BTW, it’s hard to get more local than giving the individual (or parents) the choice of schools.


    It seems to me that individual choice is the more pluralistic way to go here. I still don’t think vouchers will happen, though, which is why I prefer that federal education money be broken into block grants.

  5. Scott Swank says:

    Well brainy435,

    First of, from your moniker I see you’re one for irony right out of the gate. Nice. I’m not typically this fiesty, but I’m not one to take a slap like “bigoted” without figuring you want one right back.

    I’ll go slowly and use small words.

    1) “bigoted” means insular and intolerant. M’okay. Pluralism is diametrically opposed to either insular or intolerant worldviews. So you’re off to a fine start. For only $6.50 on Amazon you can avoid these sort of embarassing mistakes with a Webster’s dictionary my friend.

    2) “trap children” — My point is that students will go to private schools to which one or more of the following apply:
    2.1) Require lots of money
    2.2) Require entrance exams
    2.3) Espouse a particular religion
    It’s pretty clear that 2.1 & 2.2 are the best students. This means that vouchers “trap children” who do not satisfy one of the above in public schools.

    3) “indoctrinated” — Simply allowing children to avoid religious instruction is not indoctrination. See, how that shiny new dictionary could already be paying for itself?

    4) “irrational, corrupt liberal worldview” — I’m simply supporting the founding fathers’ notion of a secular, pluralist state. This is why we have separation of church & state in the 1st amendment. This is why Senate rules preclude a small (less then 60%) majority from dominating a substantial (more than 40%) minority. If you see a link between the above and either irrationality or corruption, perhaps you could you could justify yourself with an actual chain of reasoning instead of throwing out perjoratives.

    5) “how… would vouchers decrease the quality of public schools” — See 2, above.

    Thanks for playing brainy!

  6. Scott Swank says:


    I see the same problem with vouchers that I see with the worst public health funding proposals. The private schools get to cherry pick the best students, while the public schools are left with the students that require the greatest resources. This choice is (to my eyes) not really pluralistic in that is necessitates wealth, aptitude or religion. It structurally disadvantages those to whom the above do not apply — which is antithetic to my understanding of pluralism.

  7. Scott,

    Who says that in a voucher environment schools couldn’t cater to underprivileged students? Some schools would specialize in raising the abilities of those without aptitude.

    Also, some of the problems you describe could be fixed by placing conditions on vouchers, like the only schools that could use them must accept everybody (this seems like a mistake to me) or could address first amendment concerns.

  8. Scott Swank says:


    I don’t see the profit incentive in catering to underprivileged children. So my best guess is that we’re really only talking about parochial schools.

    I do like vouchers much better if they have restrictions that address my concerns (surprising, no?). In particular, if schools could only receive vouchers if they were:

    1. In the bottom 75% by tuition cost — i.e. exclude the most expensive 25%.
    2. May not be used at schools that engage in behavior that would be unconstitutional for public schools to engage in — e.g. religious education.
    3. May not be used at schools who are not willing to accept any/all students.

  9. brainy435 says:

    Nice try, but you’re the bigot who keeps whining about the religious issue. If you respect a plurality of views, that should INCLUDE religious views, not complain that someones kids might get exposed to them simply by exercising their own choice. Study up before you attempt that again.

    You give no reason as to why you automatically assume private = expensive. Or why you’re so baffled as to why entrance exams would be helpful for a damn school. Well I can only assume that the school you went to had no need of such worthless persuits of excellence or even basic education, based on your display.

    Finally, for someone so full of their own supposed education to write something like this: “This means that vouchers ‘trap children’ who do not satisfy one of the above in public school” when the WHOLE DAMN POINT of their comment was to trap ALL children in those SAME SCHOOLS… well, I can’t really respond logically to such an illogical defense.

    Too bad your parents didn’t have access to vouchers…

  10. Scott Swank says:

    Oh Brainy,

    I don’t mind if someone gets a religious education, but I don’t see why the government should be paying for madrasas. Capiche?

    I didn’t say that private schools are expensive. I said that they are either:

    1) expensive
    2) exclusive
    3) parochial

    I don’t think that the government should fund any of the above. The first two are elitist and the third is unconstitutional. Unconstitutional is a pretty strong word, so let me justify myself. If you are not well-to-do and you are not capable of passing entrance exams to get into 1 or 2 then your choice only voucher choice is religious. See my response to Robert.

    As for my education, it has at least enabled me to write in complete sentences. Contrast that with your wrestling match with possessives, sentence fragments, run-on sentences and comma splices. May I suggest that you add Strunk’s “Elements of Style” to that dictionary purchase?

  11. brainy435 says:

    Well, my last comment was caught by the spam blocker for having a link to my source, but it’ll take too long to reproduce.

    Shorter me:
    “Unconstitutional is a pretty strong word, so let me justify myself.” It’s not only strong, it’s completely false. See Supreme Court affirms school voucher program. June 27, 2002 Posted: 4:01 PM EDT (2001 GMT)From Terry Frieden

    There was also:
    “While the average annual expenditure per pupil in Cleveland’s public schools is about $6,500, tuition in Cleveland’s private schools costs an average of $2,000. ” So the “expensive private schools cost taxpayers less than a third of what the failing public schools do.

    And this:
    “About 75 percent of the voucher students are from poor families and two thirds are black.”
    Source: “Lessons Cleveland Can Teach,” Economist, November 29, 1997.

    So much for your vaunted list.