When we hear about a new medicine that makes an awful disease less awful, we are elated. But when we learn that this new medicine damages your liver, enlarges your prostate or makes blood clots, it becomes clear: In spite of the limited good it does, this is bad medicine.
School vouchers – or what we today call “opportunity scholarships” – are bad medicine. They might work well in isolated situations, but they don’t solve the problems of the intended beneficiaries: Poor kids in schools with only other poor kids. This has been a nagging, stubborn problem that has defied easy solution for four decades. Vouchers are merely the latest in a long line of oversold panaceas.
Now Gov. Christie is using budget footnotes to accomplish what the legislature has thus far refused to do: fund a school voucher program. The administration’s proposed budget allocates $2 million for vouchers through a pilot program similar to the “Opportunity Scholarship Act” (OSA) that has failed to gain support in the past – a revised version of which is pending in the legislature.
“When you have a bad situation, you don’t make it worse,” former Gov. Jim Florio recently told me. Taking the money and the most motivated students while leaving behind the great majority of students still in need, as vouchers do, does indeed make the problems of challenged schools worse.
Voucher proposals have been kicking around New Jersey since the 1990s. Gov. Florio has long studied the idea, and has opposed it for many years, viewing it as a real threat to public education.
The obligation to provide public schooling for all children is part of the very foundation of this nation. It’s also good business. When a large majority of those in need are left behind, there is a very large price to pay, with no real return on the investment.
We keep trying to make vouchers something they can’t be instead of spending the necessary time working on improvements that work best for all children in the poorest schools. If a policy change stands to benefit ten percent of our children, we shouldn’t be spending more than ten percent of our time making it happen.
There is another consideration: Money is tight these days, dictating that we use this precious resource efficiently. Vouchers are a terrible use of money. The return on investment is negative (as detailed here by the New York Times and here by Diane Ravitch). At best, we are helping a limited number of students (though the results of the existing programs have not demonstrated any academic advantage) and potentially doing serious damage to many more.
This stands out because there is a terrific proven investment we can make that helps more children, one that helps them and our society forever: Quality preschool and early literacy programs. Why, then, would we even consider investing in vouchers?
Five years ago, Greg Anrig of the Century Foundation wrote about what then appeared to be the demise of vouchers, providing historical background back to 1980 and arguing that the idea of vouchers was driven by ideology, not educational advancement.
“If conservatives could show that private schools worked better than public ones, and that the introduction of competition improved entire school systems, that would advance their arguments for welfare rollbacks, Social Security privatization, and other initiatives to replace government programs with the free market,” Anrig wrote.
That seems familiar to what we hear today. We know from experiences in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and other locations that vouchers should be an idea whose time has gone, as Anrig wrote in 2008.
But in a recent update, Anrig offers a convincing reason why this hasn’t come to pass: “[The] rise of the extreme-right Tea Party movement and its state legislative lobbying machine, ALEC, which has been central to resurrecting the voucher idea.”
Worse, the tax dollars diverted from the support of public education happens at a rate that is not representative of true costs. The idea that the money follows the child sounds right, and some people buy in to the idea because it sounds so reasonable. But the fact is the calculation of the aid transferred to a private school is not correct. The resultant damage done to the “failing” school is substantial. The teacher is still there, the lights must still work, all of the overhead remains. To calculate the savings based on an average per-child cost seriously inflates the aid taken from the school. In high-need districts, which house the very children proponents of OSA say they want to help, the impact would be entirely negative.
It should be made clear that there are some voucher success stories, but there are many more that aren’t meeting expectations. Efficient programs and efficient use of money are needed to meet the needs of all children and all taxpayers. We know for certain that education is less costly than remediation. We know for certain that the cost of school dropouts is staggering. We don’t need just a solution; we need a solution that is proven to pay off. Vouchers are not the answer. There are alternatives with demonstrated success.
Existing programs, demonstrated educational successes and fiscal efficiencies prove the point.
“We know what has to be done: pre-school programs, smaller class sizes, quality teachers, modern facilities, and the financing necessary to provide a quality education,” Gov. Florio says.
In a statement issued last year, the Governor offered a condemnation of voucher systems that remains applicable:
“Now, we have this voucher initiative to further divide us into those who will be ready for the knowledge-based economy and those who will be left to fester in failing schools from which we have siphoned off the most motivated students. All of this because we are not up to the challenges of fixing our entire educational system leaving many of our children permanently behind the curve.”
But I’ve saved the best of Governor Florio’s words of wisdom for last.
“Public education is really an investment. It’s not spending, it’s an investment that pays dividends.”