Opinion: Daily Journal

Setting the Record Straight on School Vouchers

Critics of school vouchers have been out in force recently, particularly in the pages of the News & Observer. For example, last week Yevonne Brannon and Nick Rhodes declared in an op-ed that “school vouchers are wrong for NC.” Let’s take a look at their opposition to House Bill 944: Opportunity Scholarship Act.

1. “Lower- to middle-income families who try to use the $4,200 voucher will still be left with a tuition balance they cannot afford.”

There is no evidence that this is the case. The Children’s Scholarship Fund-Charlotte, a privately funded voucher program that caps its voucher at $2,500 per student, requires participating low-income families to pay part of the tuition at the schools of their choice. Low-income families are asked to (and do) make financial sacrifices to ensure that their children receive the education that best meets their needs. Private schools are more than willing to provide financial assistance, as well.

Regardless, if one is concerned about the ability of families to afford to pay the difference between the voucher amount and the tuition charge, then that appears to be a good reason to increase the voucher amount.

2. “Vouchers are more likely to be used by those who would be able to choose private schools anyway.”

That is true, except for the pesky fact that the income eligibility for the first year of the program ensures that only low-income families are eligible. Of course, if one believes that too many low-income families are being denied vouchers, then an obvious way to solve that problem would be to expand the program.

3. “Currently, North Carolina spends about $8,400 per student in public schools, which ranks us 48 nationally in per-pupil spending. Now the proponents of this bill are saying our kids can be educated for half that amount?”

Well, it is not quite “half that amount,” but it is still a fraction of the public school average. Indeed, the average private school in North Carolina spends considerably less than the state average expenditure to educate our children.

Recently, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina surveyed (PDF) 700 private schools in North Carolina. PEFNC concluded, “When looking at average tuition rates for North Carolina’s private schools, including the aforementioned higher-priced schools, the average tuition is $6,235 a year. When excluding the top 10 percent of highest-priced tuition schools, the average tuition is $4,901 – a figure that is more reflective of the majority of North Carolina’s private schools.”

4. “Supporters claim that vouchers are a solution to student achievement problems, but evidence shows that they fail to produce this result.”

Here the authors ignore a huge body of evidence to the contrary. Rather than bore you with the research, I’ll direct you to a new study by Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice.” In a review of existing school choice research (sometimes called a “meta-study”), Forster observed, “Twelve empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the ‘gold standard’ of social science research. Of these, 11 find that choice improves student outcomes — six that all students benefit and five that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found a negative impact.” If you are looking for research specific to North Carolina, I have you covered.

5. “Last November, a district judge ruled Louisiana’s voucher program unconstitutional. Florida voters defeated an amendment that would have made it possible to channel public funds to private schools. Just this month, by a bipartisan vote of 103-43, the Texas legislature voted against using state dollars to fund private education.”

We do not live in Louisiana, Florida, or Texas, but I have nothing against the fine residents of those states.

6. “House Bill 944 will tear apart our communities by privatizing education.”

Over 96,000 children attended a private school last year, and our communities somehow survived. If you add the nearly 80,000 home-schooled children into the mix, it is a miracle that our civilization survived at all!

7. “Vouchers offer the illusion of greater parental choice, but private schools are under no obligation to accept all students and can even have a religious affiliation. Using public dollars to fund schools that cannot serve all students violates the N.C. Constitution.”

This is the “machine gun” approach to argumentation — just fire away with the hope you hit a target. In a 2006 study (PDF), David Roland of the Institute for Justice found that private school choice would not violate the North Carolina Constitution. School choice is also permitted under the U.S. Constitution. Jeanette Doran, executive director and general counsel at the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law, analyzed the constitutionality of school choice in an excellent piece titled, “School Choice Scholarship Programs Would Not Violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.” I think the title says it all.

8. “It is a misuse of public tax dollars and a cynical approach that will result in a public school system that is highly segregated by income and race.”

Dr. Forster examined the issue of school choice and racial segregation. He concluded, “Eight empirical studies have examined school choice and racial segregation in schools. Of these, seven find that school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools. One finds no net effect on segregation from school choice. No empirical study has found that choice increases racial segregation.” Call me cynical, but I think we should focus on the quality of education first and the composition of the student body second … or perhaps third or fourth.

9. “Taxpayers are already being asked to support expansion of charter schools with fewer safeguards on how the money is spent or on student achievement. Vouchers are another experiment our taxpayers cannot afford.”

There is one notable difference between these “experiments.” Charter schools are public schools. Vouchers would pay for private school tuition.

10. “Vouchers drain resources from the one institution that must accept and educate all children who walk through their doors: the public schools. The state constitution guarantees a sound basic education to all children. A $90 million giveaway from the public schools will have real and serious consequences for the quality of instruction that public schools can provide. The most disadvantaged students are the most likely to remain in public schools, which will be asked to do ever more with less.”

I hate to keep quoting Dr. Forster, but I am going to do so anyway. He found, “Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.” In other words, school choice makes public schools better.

11. “North Carolina’s voucher proposal is clearly linked to ‘model’ legislation being pushed in state legislatures by the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council.”

Actually, House Bill 944 is “linked” to Milton Friedman’s 1955 essay, “The Role of Government in Education.”

12. “Some of the sponsors simply want government out of education and want it to be in private hands, but much of the push to privatize schools is motivated by profit — private companies seeing an ‘opportunity’ to make money in a new sector.”

I strongly urge these courageous authors to identify these renegade sponsors and shady private companies and their direct advocacy for the school voucher legislation mentioned above. Let’s get it all out in the open.

Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is director of research and education studies for the John Locke Foundation.