Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

Why Republicans Are Embracing Vouchers Even Though They Don’t Work

It’s not about educational outcomes anymore.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

This week, Florida became the fourth state this year to enact a universal school-voucher system. Georgia and Texas may follow suit. The idea of giving students vouchers, a public subsidy they can spend on private school, has circulated in Republican policy for decades and has been implemented in numerous localized experiments. Republicans are scaling up their commitment to this method very quickly.

What’s striking about this upsurge is that the evidence for vouchers has turned decidedly negative. Republicans are committing themselves to a course of treatment for schools that is failing the test of evidence.

Let’s back up and explain what a voucher system is. School vouchers are often confused with charter schools. The two reform schemes do share the common idea of “school choice” — giving parents the option of sending their child to a school other than the traditional neighborhood one in which they are zoned — in the hope that more options will create better outcomes. But the two systems operate in extremely different ways.

Charter schools are different from traditional public schools in that they are designed and run by private groups rather than school districts, but they are public in the important sense that they cannot charge tuition, nor can they select their students through any method other than a random lottery. And while their management differs from state to state, the government has the ability to close them down. A system with charters involves giving students choices within a public network.

Private-school vouchers are a way to give students money to attend private schools. These schools charge tuition, select which students to admit, and are unaccountable to public authorities except in extreme circumstances.

Originally, advocates of both charter schools and vouchers hoped that giving parents choices would improve the system by introducing a market dynamic. Parents would pull their kids (and the funding that comes with them) out of bad schools and put them into good schools, leading to bad schools closing and good schools expanding.

The parental-choice dynamic never really panned out as hoped, though. Charter schools have produced impressive, even extraordinary gains in many cities, but the most successful systems depend on the presence of effective authorizers: a governing body that decides which charter schools are allowed to open and closes bad ones. The authorizers turn out to have the information needed to separate good schools from bad ones, a specialized determination that’s very hard for most parents to make.

Many parents would like their children to be able to attend a private school, but there is little reason to believe any given child will get a better education in private schools (at least ones that participate in voucher programs) over in public ones. A 2020 report in Chalkbeat explains how the evidence on vouchers has turned negative. “Older studies tended to show neutral or modest positive effects of vouchers on academic performance,” the story notes, but “in the last few years, a spate of studies have shown that voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington D.C. hurt student achievement — often causing moderate to large declines.”

Washington is an especially telling case because the city has both charters and vouchers. David Leonhardt focused on the city in 2017 and noted that charters had a positive effect on student achievement there, while vouchers had a negative effect.

So why would Republican-run states invest huge sums of money in a program that seems more likely to hurt educational outcomes than help them?

The answer is that vouchers have ceased to be an education-reform program. They are being used now mainly to reimburse parents who home-school their children or send them to private school. In Arizona, which recently enacted a universal voucher system, three-quarters of the recipients already attended private schools. Providing vouchers didn’t give children choices; it simply sent checks to parents who were already privately educating their children.

This dynamic is even clearer in Florida. The state previously had a limited voucher system for low-income students, and Governor Ron DeSantis’s bill makes it universal. “It expands school choice to every single student in the state of Florida, and it does that by eliminating the current financial-eligibility restrictions and allowing any student who is a resident of Florida and is eligible to enroll in K-12 to participate in school-choice scholarships,” he boasted. DeSantis’s reform is to make these vouchers available to people who aren’t poor.

For those who have practical concerns about the performance of the public-school system, vouchers might have once been a plausible reform experiment. But now they are simply a tool for transferring resources to families who have already left the system.

If you object on principle to the design of the public-school system, then vouchers offer an attractive solution. If you merely have a practical objection to the performance of the school system and would like to improve educational outcomes, then vouchers are a bad idea.

My wife, Robin Chait, is an education analyst who once worked for a public charter school as well as at a traditional public school, among other roles. She currently works for a nonprofit where she consults on school-choice implementation. She is not a policy advocate.
Why Republicans Embrace Vouchers Even Though They Don’t Work