I'm a Liberal But Here's Why I'm Open-Minded About Vouchers

This post is part of a series on the issue of vouchers and private school choice. With the Trump administration’s vows to expand school choice, many states are moving aggressively to create more options for families, but some who support education reform and high-quality charter schools are troubled by the use of public dollars as vouchers, tax credits or education savings accounts. More on vouchers →
  As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal and as someone who worked in city school districts for a long time, I have a confession to make: I’m not against vouchers. I’m not entirely for them, either. But I am open-minded. I’m somewhere in between the far Left’s “privatization” argument against vouchers and the far Right’s “the market solves all” argument for them. I don’t consider letting a private organization run a school to be privatization, as long as a public body controls that school—has control over its performance and how the public accesses it and can hold the school accountable. If the public controls the service, it’s a public service, regardless of who manages the delivery of it. Charter schools have shown us that non-government management can bring innovation and improvement to the service provided to the public. But while I see the benefit that “market forces” bring to public education, I—like a good "lefty," and unlike the "right’s" our U.S. Secretary of Education—think the market needs a good watching. So I’d have a lot of accountability strings to attach to any voucher:
  • They’d have to be for low-income families who live in underserved areas with no or few good schools.
  • Any private school that signs up to take public money has to be publicly accountable (with performance contracts) and publicly accessible (no selective enrollment and a random lottery if there are more applications than seats).
  • And, like private universities that benefit from Pell grants, they’d have to abide by civil rights laws and could not discriminate.

Strain Can Be Good

I agree that vouchers would put a strain on the public education system, but a good strain. If a public system isn’t serving the public well, it should be strained. And opening that system up to non-government service providers can be a healthy strain. I saw that firsthand in both Chicago and Denver. The part that I have the hardest time reconciling with vouchers is public money going to a religious school. But that already happens for college ( Pell grants). I get that elementary kids are more susceptible to religious “indoctrination” than college students. And that worries me some. But it doesn’t worry me as much as millions of elementary kids in low-income neighborhoods across the country continuing to have no access to a good education and a bright future. The upside of giving kids who need it a better school outweighs the downside of what I see as a mild infringement on the church/state sanctity. As a former school district staffer who was part of countless meetings and movements that were all about getting good schools into underserved neighborhoods and having seen how hard it is to do that, I just think it makes sense for good private schools to be on the table. And as a taxpayer, I just can’t bring myself to have a problem with my tax dollars going to pay for a kid in an underserved neighborhood to go to a good private (but publicly accountable and accessible) school. It’s certainly better than those dollars going to pay for that kid to be stuck in a school that’s not serving him well.
An original version of this post appeared on City Ed Wire as A Liberal's Confession on Vouchers.
Michael Vaughn
Michael Vaughn was the founding Communications Director of Education Post. Prior to that, Mike worked for 18 years in the communications offices of two urban school districts. He served in a variety of communications roles for the Chicago Public Schools starting in 1996, shortly after Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of CPS, and eventually served as the district's Communications Director until ...

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