Public vs. Private School Education: The Case for Public School Vouchers in Primary and Secondary Education

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1 Koppelmann 1 Jordan Koppelmann Professor Piasecki English December 2013 Public vs. Private School Education: The Case for Public School Vouchers in Primary and Secondary Education The issue of performance and quality in today s public schools continues to be a hotbutton topic in most local school districts and school boards across the country. Parents want choices for their kids education, but many can t afford private schools, especially if they have more than one child. For many families moving from one school district to another to capitalize on being in a neighborhood with better schools can be a hefty expense, and may put them in a neighborhood with homes they really can t afford. How does a public school district manage students who are underperforming or who can t keep up? What about teachers who are not making the grade themselves but stay in the public school systems regardless of how well they are performing? And what about the presumption that students who attend private schools outperform their public and charter school counterparts? All of these questions are continuously being addressed within many local governments and their school districts. So, what are the solutions that give parent s choices, when public school systems either don t meet their needs or are failing a student? Many say that education voucher programs are a reasonable solution. By definition, an educational voucher program is a system through which parents are given a tuition certificate, funded by the government or a private organization, which can be used to pay for all or part of the tuition for a child to attend a participating private school. (Edd 1). But is this really the answer? Does it really work? Many

2 Koppelmann 2 educators say taking public school dollars from public school budgets only weakens the school system not strengthens it. And as a result, many educational programs that could help kids perform better academically won t ever be implemented because there is not enough money in the budget to do so. In this paper I will address three primary aspects of public school voucher programs that continue to be debated in public school systems across the country. They are: 1. Do voucher programs really benefit a student s academic achievement? 2. Should funding come from public school dollars? 3. Are there other legitimate reasons parents may want an alternative to public school education besides the perceived academic strength? Publically funded voucher programs date as far back as the 1950s in the United States and were originally introduced by economist Milton Friedman as a way to introduce competition in the public schools in order to drive and improve academic performance. Several states adopted the concept in some form or another including states like Vermont and Maine. In the 1960s, publically funded vouchers were used to perpetuate segregation in the south by Caucasian families who wanted their kids in segregated schools instead of integrated schools. Fast forward to the 1980s through today, and a shift from social segregation to quality is more of the focus for families who want to participate in voucher programs. (Vergakis 1) Today, public voucher programs exist in more than 75 percent of public school districts. According to a recent publication, as of 2012, more than 245,000 students in 16 states plus D.C. are paying for private school vouchers with public subsidies, according to the Alliance for School Choice. Nine of those 16 states added or expanded voucher programs this year and new initiatives are about to be put in place in many more states including New Jersey and Tennessee.

3 Koppelmann 3 It is predicted that by 2014, states will be spending $1 billion a year to send children to private schools through vouchers, tax credits and similar programs, according to Robert C. Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation, an advocacy group for school choice. (Simon 1) In addition to the increased number of students participating in voucher programs, the largest groups along social lines are those in low-income families in urban communities. This makes sense since the research shows that students who underperform on standardized tests come from this segment of the primary and secondary school population. (Simon 2) But the question has to be asked, is this growth in the number of students participating in voucher programs from urban communities really an indication of the success of voucher programs and the private schools that are receiving them, or some other indicator that is not being considered? According to a study conducted by professors from the University of Illinois, in their book titled, The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools by Christopoher A. Lubienski and Sarah Theule, when controlling for demographic factors, public schools are actually doing a better job than private schools. They base this theory on the fact that private school students come from more affluent backgrounds. And as a result, they do well in private schools not just because the schools they attend are better institutions, but more because of the fact that their families have better resources. Their study also noted that these same students do equally as well at public schools. So, this evidence suggests that maybe the focus shouldn t be on taking your voucher to a private school, but rather, taking your voucher to a public school that is doing well across the spectrum. Along these same lines, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has shown that in the past five years, there has been a lot of improvement in U.S. student scores in public schools. And this takes into account all of the challenges that public schools face that

4 Koppelmann 4 private schools don t face. Public Schools don t have a choice about which they can and will enroll, the way private schools do. They have an entirely different way they operate and how they measure performance. Public schools have to work very hard at implementing new forms of instruction and improving student achievement. And they are required to do this as they face tremendous challenges with the broad range of students they are required to teach. (Ryan 1) This brings me to my second point. With the big differences between private and public schools and the unique challenges that each type of schools face, the question has to be asked if voucher programs should be funded with public dollars or private dollars? If, in fact, the public schools are doing a better job than private schools overall, then why should public dollars be spent to satisfy a family s preferences for a private school? There are two very common thoughts on this aspect of publically funded voucher programs. The first one is supported by those who oppose the concept of using public dollars for private programs and is based on the laws of separation of church and state. They believe public dollars should not be used to fund education that takes place in faith-based schools or programs. The second opinion that opposes public funding of vouchers is the one that states that voucher programs are taking resources away from public schools, and putting them into private schools the same private schools that aren t really any better than public schools. On the other hand, there are those who are in favor of using public dollars for vouchers. There are those who want religious freedoms for their kids, and for them, that includes providing them with an education that is faith-based. After all, they are paying taxes to a public school system shouldn t they have a say in how those dollars are going to be spent. (Salisbury 1)

5 Koppelmann 5 This brings me to my last and final point. There are many other reasons beside academic achievement that parents choose private schools over public schools. Many choose private schools for because of their low student-to-teacher ratio, or for faith and religious reasons. And those things aren t always measurable when it comes to those things that are important to a family s educational preference. In full disclosure, I must say that I chose this topic because I lived this topic throughout my life. I had four very distinct and pre-planned educational experiences. In elementary school I attended a charter school for one year, and then my mother home-schooled me and my sister for two years. She was an educator and so were her parents; so, education was high on her priority list. If we didn t have new shoes it didn t matter to her. Because with a good education we could buy shoes later, She would say. Then, I attended a small private Christian school from 3 rd through 8 th grade. After 8 th grade, I attended an IB High School in an affluent neighborhood, which offered a full range of IB, AP and advanced level courses. The school was one of the best in the state. We had students attending our school that weren t even in our school zone. Their parents would pay thousands of dollars to attend our school because their zones were apparently not as good. The data I found on class and socioeconomics was very believable. The kids whose parents were paying came from very wealthy families and could afford to send them. When I needed a tutor in my advanced classes, my parents simply hired one. I m not sure that cost was an issue for them. I worked alongside other academically gifted students, which drove my performance and desire to be a good student. At the end of the day, I think there s more to it than just vouchers. Everyone seems to be basing their presumption on one very important misconception. And that is that private schools are better than public schools. And I don t believe that is the case or the right assumption to make when looking for a good educational experience. My mother believes that private primary and

6 Koppelmann 6 secondary schools are over-rated. She said that it was always hard to get teachers to respond or to give meaningful feedback because they knew they didn t have to. She said it was an accountability issue. Public schools are held to a different standard. They are forced to modify tweak and essentially be accountable. She currently works at a college and still feels the same way. In conclusion, there s no doubt that the debate over public school vouchers as an option for parents looking to better prepare their kids academically, will continue. While it s true that public school vouchers breed a healthy level of competition between public schools in the most vulnerable districts, but it doesn t offer incentives for good teachers to stay with those schools or for the low performing teacher to improve. When I was in high school, my parents were always clamoring for the best teachers. This is always going to be the case. At the end of the day, I think it s all about fit. Clearly, public schools have a much larger set of challenges than private schools. But there are some trade-offs to consider and I don t think private schools have all the answers. I think public school vouchers should be available for parents to use wherever they want, whether the school is public or private.

7 Koppelmann 7 Works Cited Edd, D.. N.p.. Questions and Answers about Educational Vouchers: Facts, Figures and a Summary of the Research September 2010 Web. 3 Dec PDF file. Ryan, Julia. "The Atlantic." The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 18 Oct Web. 02 Dec Salisbury, David. "Private Education: Funding." Private Education: Funding. University of Michigan, 5 June Web. 03 Dec Simon, Stephanie. "Vouchers Don t Do Much for Students." POLITICO. N.p., 06 Oct Web. 03 Dec Vergakis, Brock. "Do Vouchers Equal Segregation?" DeseretNews.com. Deseret News, 4 June Web. 03 Dec

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