School choice and vouchers: Who are the winners?

School choice and vouchers: Who are the winners?

With recent attempts to eliminate public schools in lieu of charter schools, this article gives a different, often unseen agenda surrounding school voucher programs.


This is the official mission of the United States Department of Education: “. . . to ensure equal access to education and promote educational excellence throughout the Nation” (2002). Approximately $650 billion dollars were spent this past year, most of it at the State level, to fulfill this mission. Having an educated citizenry is essential to maintaining a democratic society and this has always been achieved through a public education system. However, in recent years this system has come under attack by those who would like to see it dismembered and replaced by market-style private schools. School vouchers have been promoted as the vehicle that will allow parents to choose their children’s school.

What are school vouchers?

The voucher system has its roots in mid-20th century Georgia when a white supremacist legislator, Roy Harris, as a means to avoid dealing with school integration, wanted to end the state education system in favor of education grants (Rawls, 2001). Later economist Milton Friedman proposed the use of vouchers as a means of applying the market economy to the public school system (Weisenberger, 2001) with the purpose of creating a competitive market in which “. . . ‘good’ schools would thrive and ‘bad’ schools would fail” (Rawls, 2001, p. 365). Following on the heels of the 1982 United States Department of Education report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, with its questionable methodology and findings (Lowe, 2002), Congress passed the Excellence in Education Act (“Excellence in Education Act,” 1991) that rekindled the fires of education reform. Something was thought to be wrong with American schools and school vouchers were promoted as the solution. Rawls (2001) describes the school voucher as “. . . a publicly funded certificate given to parents that is applied to tuition at any school approved for such purposes by the state” (p. 364).

Why Vouchers?

One of the main reasons for the recurrence of school vouchers is the perceived inability of public schools to provide an adequate education. First, what obligation does the public school system have to the public and to its students? Rawls (2001) points out that states fund public education with the idea of self-preservation:

“’. . . it is the government means of protecting the state from the consequences of an ignorant and incompetent citizenship’” (p. 367)

For this reason, education is compulsory and the essential curriculum (the “3 Rs”) is mandated by the state and must be taught by public and private schools alike. The basic function of public education is to produce literate students capable of effectively participating in the processes of a democratic society. According to Foster (1991), there is another vital function performed by public education. He refers to “performative memory” (p. 243) and its importance in creating the imagined community of a nation. Schools teach a history that has been reworked and refined to provide a national past—“. . . the continuous history of the imagined community unfolding through ‘homogeneous, empty time’ into an equally infinite past and future” (p. 241). Public schools have the role of reinforcing this past by developing patriotism. Children begin learning the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten. The school year is replete with national holidays such as former president’s birthdays and Memorial Day that build and strengthen national solidarity.

These ceremonies put the living members of the national community in touch with the dead, merging both into a community that, rendered as immemorial and immortal, acquires a reality apart from its ritual performance (Foster, 1991, p. 243)

Foster makes the relationship between the state and public education perfectly clear in this statement:

“The educational apparatus of schooling and textbooks through which versions of the national past are authorized and disseminated is largely a state creation.” (p. 243). It becomes clear that in addition to producing literate citizens, national education is also an attempt to create a national culture (Hirst & Thompson, 1995).

Who Really Benefits From A School Voucher System?

It is easy to see how vouchers might be seen as the answer to a desire for the best education possible. However, what would happen if legislation were passed to provide all parents with education vouchers for their children? This question is best answered by first deciding who will benefit from such a program.

In most cases, a voucher will only provide funding equal to the amount allotted by the state for public education of a child (Lowe, 2002). Private school tuition is generally much higher and parents must therefore find a way to provide the additional costs. There are many families who barely have enough income to provide for the necessities of living while many others have even less.

Most of these people are immediately excluded from a voucher program. Even if these families could find the additional money, private schools would select only those students who fit the socioeconomic and academic profile that will perpetuate the “picture of success”. The end of this analysis means that those who would most likely benefit from a voucher system would be middle class families with the resources to pay the additional costs and those families who have already placed their children in private schools.

The reality is that the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” widens further in the presence of a voucher system (Latham, 1998).

Who then would really benefit from a voucher system? As discussed, most of the socioeconomically disadvantaged will be automatically excluded from participation. Another relatively unseen effect of a voucher system is that as funding flows to private schools, it flows away from public schools, increasing the existing imbalance of resources between urban and suburban schools (“Racial justice 101,” 2000). The impact is greatest on the poor since most live in urban settings where funding is already insufficient. Rather than providing advantages to these disadvantaged children, they become even more disadvantaged (Whitty, 1997), losing access to other services such as healthcare and meals that the school can no longer afford to offer (MacLeod, 1987; McLaren & Gutierrez, 1997; Rawls, 2001). Doerr (2001) makes it clear what public schools need:

“. . . more adequate and more equitably distributed funding, repair, replacement of worn-out buildings, smaller classes and therefore more teachers (about fifteen children) in the lower grades, and more attractive teacher compensation.” (p. 40).

This becomes even less likely to happen with voucher systems. The answer to the question then becomes an all too familiar one. Those middle class families with children in private schools would obviously benefit financially from a voucher system. However, the wealthy stand to gain the most because they would recoup a part of the money paid for private school tuition. There is a tax advantage for the wealthy: “A reduced tax rate would provide the well-to-do with a voucher for part of their tuition for private schools” (Lowe, 2002). The elite also profit from their investments in constructing additional private schools to accommodate new students.

Is Private Really Better?

Many write about the inadequacy of the public school system while private school access is perceived as the answer to providing “quality” education. However, there is conflicting data as to the “superior quality” of a private school education. Greene (2001), commenting about the Cleveland voucher program says that there are “. . . statistically significant benefits from school choice” (p. 21). However, when referring to the same voucher program, the American Teacher (“Voucher program fails to deliver,” 2001) contradicts this statement,

“. . . vouchers are not providing the academic advantages that supporters have promised and may even be splintering student populations along racial lines” (p. 14).

So it seems that neither public nor private schools are meeting parents’ and students’ expectations.

A Subtler Agenda

There is another dimension to the problems in education that spans public and private schools alike. It is best stated by McLaren and Gutierrez (1997):

What is essential for educators. . . is to dismantle the discourses of power and privilege and social practices that have epistemically mutated into a new and terrifying form of xenophobic nationalism in which there is but one universal subject of history – the white, Anglo, heterosexual male of bourgeois privilege. (p. 214)

Private schools simply represent one vehicle to strengthen this “power and privilege” that McLaren and Gutierrez recognize. Coons (2001) contends that public schools do not exist anyway since “. . . ‘public’ identifies institutions that are accessible to all citizens. . . and. . . access to any particular state school today remains a privilege attached to residence.” (p. 7).


Substantive changes must be made in education, changes that modify the social and cultural perspectives of those at the policy-making level. “What is needed in school settings, then, is radical shifts in what counts as knowledge and what counts as learning—shifts that allow disruptive and critical forms of pedagogy to emerge.” (McLaren & Gutierrez, 1997, p. 207). The significant problem has nothing to do with whether schools are public or private but rather with the views held by society as a whole clearly stated here:

“. . . the present conditions in our schools are as much a part of moral indifference as they are a result of the current economic flows within late capitalism.” (McLaren & Gutierrez, 1997, p. 194).

It is sometimes easy to yield to what appears to be the “inevitability of the situation” but as McChesney (1999) emphasizes when he quotes Noam Chomsky, “. . . if you act like there is no possibility of change for the better, you guarantee that there will be no change for the better.” (p. 5-6).


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