Even if you accept the argument that students who receive vouchers to attend private schools are better off, those students are in a minority. Vouchers do not help students who live in areas where there is little choice of schools; students turned away from the schools of their choice; or students in the remaining public schools that are receiving less funding as a consequence of the priority given to choice rather than the improvement of all public schools.
In Florida in 2002 there were 2.5 million students in public schools and kindergartens, whilst 16,000 students received vouchers costing the state taxes of around $138 million over two years, money the state could ill afford given that it was ranked near the bottom of the states in terms of public school funding.
Even where voucher programs are confined to public schools, opponents argue that vouchers result in a shift of funds away from the worst resourced public schools and “concentrate underperforming and problem students in inferior schools” as has happened with open enrolment schemes.
Like open enrolment systems, vouchers allow a few schools to improve their test scores by being selective about which students they accept and to gain tax-payer funded income, at the expense of the poorest schools. In this way “voucher systems increase social segregation” going against a traditional aim of education which is to promote social cohesion and equity. In her report on voucher systems around the world Wylie concluded that: “Increasing competition among schools can lead to lower student achievement in schools serving students from low income homes, thus depressing overall achievement levels.”
In Sweden, it has been argued that the choice of voucher-funded 'free schools', has decreased choice as brighter students move to the 'free schools' causing middle-class parents to also move their children. In 2003 the Swedish National Agency for Education found that free schools increased segregation in Swedish schools in terms of racial and educational background.
Vouchers that fund attendance at private schools are supposedly aimed at equity and opportunities for poor children but in practice they often fund middle-class children who are already going to or intending to go to private or religious schools. Poorer parents cannot afford the extra costs – not covered by the vouchers – of tuition, uniforms and transport to distant schools (as private schools and the better resources public schools tend to be cited in wealthy neighbourhoods).
A report by People for the American Way Foundation found that in its first year of operation, the Washington DC program gave vouchers to less than 75 children from public schools “in need of improvement” out of 1300 granted. In contrast some 200 students already attending private schools received vouchers.
In Pennsylvania, most of the vouchers went to children already enrolled in private or religious schools. In Texas, even the children of the wealthiest families can receive vouchers to attend private schools and those schools give preference to those already enrolled.
Friedman and other free market proponents, in fact envisaged vouchers as a way of privatising schools by making vouchers available to everyone, with wealthier ‘consumers’ able to supplement the voucher to get into more expensive schools. Voucher programs are really a way for governments to subsidise private schools, particularly in nations where government funding of private schools is not politically acceptable as in the US.
Tax credits can also promote inequity. Where parents are offered tax credits, it enables wealthy parents to have private school fees subsidised. Corporate tuition tax credits, like vouchers, deprive public schools of tax-payer money and tend to be used for scholarships that go to middle or wealthier children, despite the rhetoric about helping the poor.
In Florida in the first year of operation, 2002, more than a third of recipients of the $3500 vouchers awarded by private scholarship funding organisations went to students who would have gone to private schools anyway. A company can get up to $5 million tax credits for donations to these funding organisations amounting to up to $88 million each year.
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