Worlds of Education

Refusing Vouchers to Protect Public Education

published 16 December 2016 updated 16 December 2016

By Frank Adamson,  Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE)

The assumed election of Donald Trump and his nomination of Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education have placed the American system of public education under threat. Trump and DeVos will likely propose a national voucher scheme that would privatize education and likely lead to lower quality, inequitable, and re-segregated education. Evidence from both the U.S. and other countries in a new book, Global Education Reform, demonstrates that voucher policies increase educational inequality and diminish democratic participation in education. Americans must preserve public education, a fundamental pillar of our society.

What are education vouchers?

Vouchers are public tax dollars given to families to purchase education at any type of institution: public, private, religious, homeschooling, etc. On the surface, vouchers seem like the ultimate choice; but in reality, education vouchers encroach upon several principals of American democracy, including the separation of church and state, meritocracy, and democracy. First, they violate the separation of church and state because parents can use public money to pay for religious education. This election cycle included a remarkable amount of antagonism that could be exacerbated by the isolation of future generations in private schools catering to narrow cultural and religious niches.

Second, vouchers eliminate meritocracy by entrenching and reproducing social and economic stratification. Research in Milwaukee shows that private schools accepting vouchers predominantly compete with lower income schools rather than schools with middle or higher socioeconomic status students. As a result, these already under-resourced, lower income schools receive an even smaller share of educational resources. In addition, because private schools can set admissions criteria, the public schools are left with the most disadvantaged and expensive to serve students. Wealthier parents also often “top-up” their voucher by paying extra fees to purchase incrementally better educational experiences for their children, thereby increasing gaps in education. The most illustrative example of this occurred in Chile, where a voucher program instated in 1980 has reproduced social inequality for generations, resulting in massive protests and social movements to reclaim public education.

Third, vouchers violate the American ideal of democracy because they transfer educational decisions from the public domain (through school boards and elections) to private management companies and organizations. This has already occurred in charter schools run by private charter management organizations that refuse public input into teaching and curriculum decisions. Furthermore, these organizations often prioritize profits over learning, using public tax dollars to hire inexperienced, cheaper teachers and pocketing the difference. By permitting entirely private schools, vouchers would further decrease public accountability and create a wall between the public and the education sector, thereby diminishing democracy and the role of education as a public good.

Finally, it is critical to understand that the debate about education vouchers is nested within a larger battle over labor. Vouchers can disenfranchise teacher unions because they disperse teachers across many types of institutions and constrain their capacity to collectively bargain. In Chile, teacher unions were dissolved, teacher salaries decreased by over half, and teaching became deprofessionalized based on non-competitive salaries and working conditions. In the U.S., the push for education privatization comes from foundations of wealthy companies and families, such as the heirs of Walmart, a company notorious for its anti-labor policies and practices.

Trump and DeVos’s proposed voucher system promises to concurrently segregate students by class, ethnicity, and ability level while socially ostracizing individual students based on their ethnicities and identities. This system—driven by underlying agendas of marginalizing labor and generating private profit—will violate three core American principles: the separation of church and state, meritocracy, and democratic participation. In Chile, hundreds of thousands of people have marched in the streets to recapture public education after the vouchers decimated their system; U.S. citizens would do well to protest a national voucher policy before losing public education as a foundation of and for democracy.

Dr. Frank Adamson is a Senior Policy and Research Analyst at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE). The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the views of this organization.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.