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What are school vouchers?

School voucher systems come in a variety of flavors, but all of them involve the payment of state or federal money to the parents of private school children to offset the cost of tuition, books, or other educational expenses. Generally, these systems would give tuition vouchers to any parent that wants their child to attend a private school, religious or otherwise. According to voucher proponents, these reforms will help schools achieve academic excellence. Their argument goes something like this:

For all practical purposes, state and local governments have a monopoly on education. This monopoly stifles competition between schools, for at least two reasons. First, most public schools have a guaranteed enrollment. Most school systems, for example, assign children to schools on a geographical basis (if you live in neighborhood X, you will go to school Y). Accordingly, schools have no incentive to improve the quality of their education to attract students. Regardless of the quality of the education they provide, they will always be in demand.

Second, it's difficult to buy out of the public school system if you are dissatisfied with their product. If you're rich, of course, you can always send your children to private schools, but most parents find private school tuitions out of reach. Hence, only a small percentage of parents actually have the ability to opt out of the public school system. Again, this means that the public schools have no incentive to provide good education; since people can't opt out, they don't have to be concerned with the quality of the education they provide.

The solution, then, is to give parents maximum freedom to choose the school to which they send their children. This can be done by giving every parent a voucher that they can use to offset all or part of a private school tuition. They simply turn the voucher over to the private school, and the school redeems the voucher for a specified amount of money. By increasing the parent's ability to choose alternatives to public education, it will force the public schools to compete for students against private schools. This will force the schools to offer best education possible, at least if they want to stay in business.

We note that the argument we've given above is not by any means the most extreme offered by religious conservatives. Some religious conservatives have seriously argued that the public school system should be abolished so that all schools will become, in effect, private.

Since each private school charges its own tuition, and since most voucher system proposals would set the worth of the voucher at a specified level, there is no guarantee that a voucher will completely cover the cost of private education. At an inexpensive school, a voucher will cover much of the cost of tuition. At an expensive school, a voucher will make no difference at all to the poor parent.

Additionally, we note that many voucher systems would be financed by corresponding reductions in public school funding. A recent California proposal, for example, set the worth of a voucher at the average amount spent per pupil in the California system. The proposal would have subtracted that amount from the California school system for each student opting out of the public system for private schools. Hence, the proposal was a direct transfer of funds from the public systems to private schools.

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