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The Controversy over School Vouchers

By Ella Rook

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The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos is an advocate for school choice using voucher programs, a controversial way of providing families with schooling options other than their local public high school. With vouchers, families would be given tax credits – essentially coupons – to put towards a school of their choice.  Although rural and poor neighborhoods suffer from this system, how could the Bay Area, with it’s sprawling metropolis and wealth of alternative schools, be affected?

It is highly unlikely a voucher program would be initiated in California, because of the strong resistance the state has to the Trump Administration and DeVos’ opinions on public education. As Kevin Skelly, Superintendent of the San Mateo Union High School District puts it, “I don’t see any chance that we’ll have vouchers in California. The political forces are very hostile to vouchers.” But if we did have them, what groups of students would be harmed the most? Would any benefit?

The first thing to understand, is that vouchers draw money away from public high schools. This is because when a student chooses a non-public school, the tax money that would have gone to the public school instead follows the student to their school of choice. This negatively affects public schools, because there are certain basic requirements a classroom must meet whether they have five students or 35 students. Needing to meet the same requirements but on a smaller budget (because of fewer students) means it is harder to provide a quality education, and districts may have to cut programs such as PE, after-school programs, and arts education. According to Akshaya Natarajan, a recent Political Science graduate from UC Santa Barbara, these programs, “are shown to benefit childhood development” and cutting them will mean, “that kids in low-income communities will lose out on even more resources that kids from wealthier families have.”  

When speaking with Nancy Magee, an Associate Superintendent in the Student Services Division of the San Mateo County Office of Education, it becomes apparent that families of a lower socioeconomic status and families of Special Education students might be hurt the most by vouchers. Magee says, “vouchers are supposed to help lower income families, but say [those families] want to send their student[s] to a private school 10 miles north, how are they going to get there? Both parents likely work, do they have the resources to get there, is the private school required to provide transportation? Can the parents even participate in the school community? Is that really a better education for the student?”

By contrast, Magee theorizes that vouchers will immediately benefit, “upper middle class families who have resources to drive or are able to get around.” Hillary Harmssen, Managing Director for the San Francisco Bay Area for the California Charter School Association thinks that vouchers will benefit those who have “access to information” and worries that people who don’t have good information, possibly immigrants, English language learners, and communities of color will not be able to make an educated decision as to where to send their children.  When looking at Indiana’s voucher program, more than 50% of voucher recipients have never been to a public school. This means that vouchers intended for low income families are most likely being used by middle class families to cut the cost of private school.

For special education students it is highly unlikely the voucher credit would cover the cost of caring for the students needs. In Skelly’s words, “If vouchers were only a certain amount of money, then no one would be wanting to educate those kids” because schools would have to spend their own money to provide necessary resources to special education students, since the voucher is not sufficient. According to Magee, it also very possible that many private schools would say, “we don’t have the resources or expertise to help these students.” Meaning that they would be forced to stay at underfunded public schools or specialized classrooms provided by the SMCOE.  

Another concern Magee has is the, “opportunity [for parents] to be more segregating in their values.” Meaning that parents can chose to send their students to less diverse schools which align with their religion or philosophy. Magee ended our interview by saying “the public school system is a great example of democracy with students of all different backgrounds working together, and I think we risk to lose that if a voucher system takes hold.”

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