School Choice Criticism: Heads We Win, Tails You Lose
On multiple legs of my commute this week I’ve heard parts of an NPR series on school vouchers. In general, I think much of the commentary has been fair. School vouchers are not some miracle cure that improves schools overnight. Voucher programs are created imperfectly, implemented imperfectly, and thus have growing pains, so not everyone is happy with them. Those people deserve to have their stories told just like families who use vouchers and are thriving.
However, one line of criticism has irked me. The headline of this story encapsulates it well: “Indiana’s School Choice Program Often Underserves Special Needs Students.”
It is true that a smaller percentage of voucher-using students in Indiana are identified as having special needs. It is also true that the maximum voucher amount in the state is $4,800.
That $4,800 number was reached because opponents of vouchers argued that the program should not be able to access local property tax dollars or federal dollars for low-income students or students with special needs. The voucher is derived only from the funding that the state allocates to educate children. What’s more, it also leaves behind 10% of state funding so that traditional public schools have money for fixed costs like debt service and capital upgrades, because opponents also argued that even if students leave, traditional public schools still have to keep the lights on, the building heated, and the parking lot paved.
So opponents constrain the funding amount to a level that can barely pay to educate a student with zero special needs in an already efficient school and then complain when schools don’t take on harder (and more expensive to educate) children.
It’s heads we win, tails you lose. If you actually get the money you need to meet the needs of students with special needs, you are sucking the system dry. If you don’t, and thus don’t serve those kids, you’re discriminating. School choice programs can’t win.
We should be realistic about the tradeoffs in the design of school choice programs. Limiting the amount of money that follows each child will shape who gets served and who doesn’t. If you want voucher programs to serve more students with special needs, send more money with them. If you don’t want to send that money, how is it fair to cry “discrimination” when students aren’t served?