Vouchers are Pell Grants for students under 18

Jun 7, 2017

President Trump’s budget includes a bold proposal for students – a new private school choice program of $250 million for families that want it.  This is a fraction of the $59 billion that Trump wants to spend on education, but it is the most innovative and forward-looking public education proposal in years.

This program may create a federal tax credit for companies and individuals who offer vouchers, or scholarships, to low-income families to pay private school tuition.  Details are coming soon.  Meanwhile, political interests are already working overtime to declare vouchers will hurt public schools. They even claim that vouchers will undermine our democracy.

See: “School vouchers don’t just undermine public schools, they undermine our democracy,” by Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers union, in The Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2017.

To which I say: “Not so fast, Randi Weingarten!”

Democracy relies on extending education to all people, not just the children of people who can buy homes in communities with good public schools, or who can afford private school tuition.  For the wealthy, the real estate market is their school choice program.

Vouchers help families in non-rich communities, whose zip code often traps them in the heavily unionized public school monopoly.  Democracy is not served when schools fail to educate a growing segment of urban, low-income and minority children. Offering all children the opportunity to learn is vital to our democracy, essential to success in life, and the foundation of the prosperity of this country.

Public leaders recognized this core value long ago...but only for students over 18.

For over 70 years, federal officials have offered choice scholarships to veterans and low-income students to attend college.  The 1944 GI Bill pays for the college and technical school of the student’s choice.  Pell Grants, and a wide variety of federal grants offer students money to attend the public or private university of their choice.  Millions of public education dollars go every year to religious and other private colleges across the country – hardly a threat to our democracy.

Vouchers are no different than Pell Grants or GI benefits, except the money goes to the families of students younger than age 18.  A recent AP poll reveals strong popular support for letting low-income families use vouchers for private schools.  Officials in 31 states now offer families vouchers, choice scholarships, education savings accounts or tax credit scholarships.

Today, more than a quarter-million students receive vouchers to fund their education, often to attend private and religious schools.  Again, no threat to our democracy has emerged.

School vouchers are successful at helping students learn. EdChoice’s Greg Foster has reviewed 18 empirical studies of school choice programs.  He found that 14 showed improved student outcomes, two found no effect, and two reported a negative effect. Dr. Foster’s review also shows traditional schools improve their own programs when administrators realize some families will seek a voucher rather than attend their assigned school.

Vouchers let parents act on behalf of their children.  Vouchers allow parents a gateway to a better education for their children. Vouchers do not threaten our democracy.

Powerful political interests, like Randi Weingarten’s union, are determined to force families to accept their school assignments. In a democracy, however, people should decide for themselves.  Public policy has long allowed students who have reached their 18th birthday to have full publicly-funded school choice, including private schools.  So why don’t we simply extend the same popular and well-proven policy to students under 18?

Maybe the Trump Administration’s modest school voucher proposal isn’t so scary after all.