As Kansas City considers expanding pre-K on the April 2nd ballot, two things about the research should be made clear: pre-K programs often do not have the long-term results supporters claim they do, and the programs that do show results cannot be scaled up for an entire city. These facts aside, there is one good thing about the Mayor’s proposal: it’s a voucher. Mind you, the word voucher never appears in the Mayor’s 70-page implementation plan. The Mayor argued in an American Public Square panel discussion that his proposal was not a voucher. He said:
A voucher would be . . . taking public money and pouring it into a non-public entity. But pre-K doesn’t work like that and this tax doesn’t work like that. It’s not a voucher. What we are doing with pre-K instead of pouring money into [schools] from the public trough is we’re pouring more money into all of the [schools].
The mayor seems to think that money raised through a three-eighths percent sales tax is not the “public trough.” But his is a distinction without a difference; a program does not need to spend particular tax dollars in order to be considered a voucher.
It’s true, however, that many voucher programs use education dollars. National Public Radio, in an explainer piece on vouchers, said only that they are state dollars taken from “what the state would have otherwise spent to educate” children. Ed Choice, an organization that supports education vouchers, described vouchers as coming from “funds typically spent by a school district.”
Regardless of the tax source, vouchers are simply public dollars made available to families to offset the costs of the school they choose for their children, essentially functioning like a scholarship. Those public dollars can be raised from property taxes as in the case with local school funding, income taxes as in the case of federal programs, or sales taxes as in the case with the Mayor’s pre-K program. But they are all voucher programs.
It is understandable why the Mayor, in pitching his program to the education establishment, wants to avoid the term. Vouchers, and programs like it, have become toxic among public school bureaucracies since it would break their monopoly on public dollars for education. This is the main reason the public school districts in Kansas City oppose the Mayor’s proposal, but giving parents the power to choose which program is best for their kids is the strongest aspect of his plan.
Mayor James should be congratulated for recognizing and answering the demand for more and greater parental involvement in their children’s education. School choice is the trend in Kansas City and, despite its other significant shortcomings, his pre-K voucher program at least respects that.