School Vouchers – Panacea or Snake Oil?

Ross L. Meyer
Special to The Tribune
Posted

As most Coloradans know, at least those who keep up with statewide education news, the Douglas County school board recently approved — unanimously — a groundbreaking plan to help pay the tuition costs for hundreds of students so that they can attend private schools.

This plan, known colloquially as a school voucher program, enjoys ardent support from some quarters, but vigorous opposition elsewhere.

Is such a plan useful, does it seem a wise use of taxpayer provided money, and is it available to all students?

Or, as many think, should public money earmarked for education be used exclusively for public schools to benefit all students? As with so many topics dotting the American sociological landscape, the answers lie in the murky sea of the individual’s political leanings.

Those who believe that school vouchers are not only legal but also appropriate argue that competition would increase the quality of both private and public education as it has for higher education with publicly funded state universities directly competing against private universities. Many proponents of school vouchers see it as a remedy for the negative cultural impact caused by under-performing public schools, those that fall disproportionately on demographic minorities. Still, others believe that vouchers improve academic outcomes at public schools, reduce racial segregation, deliver better services to special education students, and do not drain money from public schools.

While opponents of school vouchers agree with most of the advantages cited by proponents, the opponents are chiefly concerned with the siphoning of public money away from public schools and the selectivity of the program. Why, the opponents ask, should taxpayer money slated for public education be parceled out to a small segment of students?

Do Colorado public schools have problems? Are class sizes frequently too large? Could classroom instruction be improved? The answers to those and other related questions are a resounding yes. But will taking away money from public schools likely improve the situation?

To this Colorado resident, the disadvantages of school vouchers far outweigh the advantages. True, those students who attend a private school who would otherwise be enrolled in a public school will more than likely, on average, receive a better education (however that is defined). But at what cost to public education? By whatever arcane measures supporters use to show that school vouchers do not drain money away from public schools, it is hard to understand how that can be the case. The very notion of school vouchers employs the use of tax dollars. As stated at Dictionary.com, school vouchers “are a government cash grant or tax credit for parents, equal to all or part of the cost of educating their child at an elementary or secondary school of their choice.” (Emphasis added).

To be certain, public education in Colorado (as well as the entire nation) needs improvement. According to Greater Education Colorado, our state ranks 40th in per pupil spending adjusted for regional cost differences, 40th in median student-teacher ratio in primary level schools, and 41st in technology in our schools. Under “Colorado Compared to Other States and the Nation” (http://highered.colorado.gov/), the section entitled Finance provides particularly insightful information. Here Colorado ranks substantially below the national average in seven of the eight categories.

Douglas County parents who wish to send their children to a private or parochial school have every right to do so. But they should not expect taxpayers to subsidize their choice. Colorado public education clearly needs additional money. Let’s not exacerbate that situation through the use of school vouchers.

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