Vouchers vindicated

Posted: Jul 02, 2002 12:00 AM

The court cases that get the most media attention are not necessarily the cases that will have the most impact on the society. Despite all the controversy surrounding the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision outlawing "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance or the Supreme Court's decision outlawing executions of murderers with low test scores, the decision with the greatest potential for benefiting American society is the Supreme Court's decision declaring vouchers constitutional, even if most of these vouchers end up being used at religious schools.

One of the main phony arguments against vouchers is now dead. Vouchers are no more a violation of the Constitution than the G.I. Bill that paid for the education of military veterans at Notre Dame, Holy Cross, and other religious colleges.

Opponents of vouchers have other phony arguments to fall back on, however. One is that vouchers will drain money away from the public schools, making it harder for them to provide a good education to the students remaining.

That argument is just bad arithmetic, perhaps brought on by fuzzy math. Vouchers almost invariably pay much less money than the average cost of educating students in the public schools. When students who cost $8,000 a year to educate in the public schools transfer to a private school with a $4,000 voucher, the total cost of educating all these students does not go up. It goes down.

Far from reducing per capita spending in the public schools, the departure of voucher students leaves more money per pupil for those left behind. It is of course true that the total sum of money in the public school may decline, but if half the students depart, should the school continue to get the same money it had when there were twice as many students?

This emphasis on money is a tragic farce, in view of all the research that shows virtually no correlation between spending per pupil and educational outcomes. Districts with some of the highest per pupil expenditures have some of the lowest test results, and vice versa. Countries that spend less than half as much per pupil outperform American students on international tests, year after year.

One of the most hypocritical objections made by opponents of vouchers is that the vouchers pay so little that they can only be used in religious schools. If that is the critics' real concern, why don't they advocate raising the amount of money per voucher?

In reality, those who are up in arms about disparities in per pupil expenditure from one public school district to another almost never advocate equalizing expenditures between voucher recipients and students in the public schools.

The truly ugly aspect of the case against vouchers is the objection that vouchers will allow private schools to "skim off" the best students from the public schools. Students are not inert objects being skimmed off by others. These students and their parents choose what they want to do -- for the first time, as a result of vouchers setting them free from the public school monopoly.

When these voucher critics send their own children off to upscale private schools, do they say that Phillips Academy or Sidwell Friends School are "skimming" the best students out of the public schools? Affluent parents are simply doing what any responsible parents would do -- choosing the best education they can get for their children.

Only when low-income parents are now able to do the same thing is it suddenly a question of these students being "skimmed" by other institutions. But whenever any group rises from poverty to prosperity, whether by education or otherwise, some do so before others. Why should low-income families be told that either all of them rise at the same time or none of them can rise?

If there has actually been harm done to the public schools by vouchers, there ought to be evidence of it by now. But voucher critics have none, after all these years, and rely on scary but unsubstantiated theories instead.

What we are really talking about are the teachers' unions wanting to keep a captive audience, for the sake of their members' jobs, and social engineers wanting to control low-income children and their parents, as they themselves would never want to be controlled.