Blocking Educational Vouchers Only Hurts the Kids Who Stay Trapped

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The U.S. Department of Justice has decided to sue the State of Louisiana over its school voucher program. They want the courts to block any vouchers in the half of the state's school districts that are under court-order desegregation programs because the vouchers might make schools more segregated. They cite a few examples with very small sample sizes. More important than any cherry-picked statistics should be the fact that the program involves real children in low-performing schools whose parents are choosing to participate in the voucher program.

The Louisiana school voucher program in dispute certainly seems to be a well-defined voucher program. It is only open to children from lower-income families (250 percent of the poverty line or less) in low-performing schools, designated with grades of C, D, or F in the state's grading system for schools. The vouchers are worth the smaller of the private school tuition or 90 percent of the spending per pupil in the public schools. The program is funded using state funds, but not funds from the regular education budget, so the public schools do not lose any funding when a student gets a voucher. A lottery is used to randomly determine who gets the vouchers if more students apply than the program's funding can cover.

Putting all the details of the voucher program together, it appears to be well-targeted at children trapped in low-performing public schools without the family financial resources to transfer to private schools.

Given that students voluntarily apply for the program and then are randomly selected for a voucher, it is hard to see how the program could have a negative impact on the racial composition of a school district. The State Education Superintendent has strongly disputed the Justice Department's contentions. He points out that the districts in question are already heavily black and that if the Justice Department has its way most of the children trapped in the state's worst schools will be black.

School voucher programs are beneficial for a number of reasons. First, they give the parents and children lucky enough to get a voucher the ability to choose the school they think is best for them. With the income cap on Louisiana's program, the families being given the ability to choose their school are ones who likely could not make such a choice without the voucher. It is a basic tenant of economics that removing constraints from people's choice sets makes them better off. A family that does not want a voucher need not apply; those that want one must feel that their children will be better off in a different school.

Second, voucher programs generally motivate public schools to perform better to avoid losing children and money as kids with vouchers leave to go to private schools. In the Louisiana case, the public schools do not lose any funding because the Louisiana State Supreme Court ruled the funding for vouchers has to come from a separate pot. Thus, that motivation will be lacking in Louisiana and diminished public education funding is not a concern that can be used to oppose the program.

To the extent that vouchers provide school choice to parents and make public schools think of the parents more like customers to be kept happy, vouchers provide a large benefit. A major problem with public education today is that schools see the governments that fund them as the customer whose wishes they must meet, rather than the students or parents. After all, government can give them more money (for new buildings and higher teacher salaries), whereas parents are powerless unless they can afford to pay for private school. Changing this equation to give more power to parents is valuable.

Finally, voucher programs allow more kids to go to schools that fit them best. Some children do better in their local public school while others may benefit from a nearby private school. Neither is superior for all children because children have different abilities, learning styles, personalities, and outside interests. Thus, the size of the school, the breadth of its extracurricular programs, the ability to customize the level of instruction for each student, and the philosophy of the school relative to instructional approach all influence which school fits a particular kid best.

Parents who believe that their children are better off in their current public school will not apply for a voucher. Parents who believe that a private school would fit their kid better and who cannot afford the school without help will apply for a voucher. Those who receive vouchers will be able to move their kids to new schools where their parents expect them to do better. Particularly in the Louisiana program where schools do not lose funding due to vouchers, it is hard to see how anybody is harmed by the program.
Blocking the Louisiana program only serves to harm children. Families seeking a voucher are seeking a better education for their children. The Department of Justice wants to force some children to receive inferior educations in order to protect against a possibility that some schools might become more segregated through the action of children voluntarily and randomly selected for vouchers.

Given the racial composition of the school districts in question, the Justice Department wishes to harm some black children by denying them vouchers in order to protect other black children from going to a school with even more black children. How does one determine which group of children deserve to be protected from harm? Since the vouchers are assigned by a random lottery, nobody even knows in advance which kids are in which group.

The Justice Department does not appear to have any coherent reason to block this voucher program. If the federal government wins, kids will suffer to appease some imagined social goal. It is unclear what the benefit is from forcing kids to stay in low-performing schools. In fact, given that the public schools will have the same funding and fewer children to teach, perhaps under Louisiana's voucher program everybody wins.


Jeffrey Dorfman is a professor of economics at the University of Georgia, and the author of the e-book, Ending the Era of the Free Lunch

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