Easily one of the most controversial topics in American public school education, school choice and voucher programs have pros and cons that need to be considered when deciding which position to support.
What Is School Choice?
Traditionally, students living in a designated geographical area have been assigned to the public school in their neighborhood. This is still the default arrangement in most public school systems throughout the country. Depending on population density, there are many students who live in areas with one elementary school, one intermediate school and one high school, and school choice simply means they can attend these district schools, choose to go to a private school, or be home-schooled. In some cases, virtual or online schools may be available, also referred to as distance learning.
Some districts with multiple schools at each level allow students to choose a school outside of their immediate neighborhood, space permitting. Increasingly, areas with more population density have other types of public schools that offer additional choices. These include charter schools and magnet schools which are also public schools and don't require tuition.
These options give parents the ability to choose the style of schooling that will best fit their children.
What Is the Voucher Program?
School voucher programs expand on the options available to parents by giving them the tax dollars that would normally be used for the public education system to pay for their children's education as they see fit. The voucher amount is based on how much schools typically get for each student, each school year, and can be used to pay for private schools, which may be religious or secular in nature. The voucher may not be enough to cover the full cost of tuition at a private school, but can help parents pay for the education they deem best.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia currently offer school vouchers. Two of these states, Maine and Vermont, do not allow vouchers to be used at religious schools.
The Pros of School Choice and Vouchers
- The primary benefit of school choice is that it gives parents the power to make choices for their children, based on their needs, interests and learning styles.
- School choice encourages competition among area schools, which has resulted in raising the standard of education throughout all schools.
- In areas with failing public schools, students have a chance at a better education when their parents have options for their schooling. The voucher program in Washington, D.C. increased student graduation rates by 21 percent overall and parents reported high levels of satisfaction with the schools.
- Vouchers eliminate the need for parents to pay twice for their children's education: once with tax dollars and then again in private school tuition.
- Many parents feel that it is not the government's responsibility to tell them where their children should be educated. School choice allows them to enroll their child in a school that better fits their religious, cultural or racial background.
- A study shows that school choice and the school voucher program in Louisiana has resulted in reduced racial segregation. Many families have used vouchers to avoid the "school-to-prison pipeline" by getting their children out of racist or gang-dominated schools.
The Cons of School Choice and Voucher Programs
- The voucher program takes money away from the public school system. The lower student population may not offset the decreased budget and this can undermine the value of public education. Many believe that families with the means to send their children to private schools should be responsible for those costs instead of taking money from low-income area public schools.
- Many private schools are religious, and opponents of the voucher system believe it constitutes a violation of the separation of church and state.
- Public schools are required to meet the needs of disabled and special-needs students while private schools are not, meaning those students are not able to use vouchers.
- In some areas, students attending private schools did not perform better academically than public school students. In some cases, students showed no improvement in reading skills and suffered losses in math.
- Parents don't always make better school choices for their children. It's important to weigh the pros and cons of each available school as some may not be better than the neighborhood public school.
- Private schools can be insular, whereas public schools have a demographic mix of religions, socio-economic groups and cultures. Public schools are important for promoting democracy.
For More Information on School Choice
The Brookings Institution and the Center on Reinventing Public Education studied 18 cities offering public school choice and have published a report on how school choice is playing out for families in those cities. The data in their report, both pro and con, can help focus the school choice debate on facts rather than emotions.
Sources:Center on Reinventing Public Education: How Are American Cities Delivering on the Promise of Public School Choice?
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