The contentious nomination and confirmation of Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has brought the school voucher system, a system for which DeVos is a staunch advocate, to the forefront of the debate regarding which educational programs should receive government funding.
Educational spending represents 5.6% of the GDP, and yet the positive externalities of this expenditure, when used for effective programs, outweighs the costs. Education is correlated with, among other things, higher wages (and thus greater contribution to taxes) and a higher quality of life. Education also encourages economic growth, enables the United States to compete globally, drives business and community development, and lessens inequality. Investment in education is investment in the future and continued investment is needed in order for the United States to continue to grow.
School vouchers act as scholarships or coupons. The government gives them to parents who then use them to send their child(ren) to any school they choose- religious and private included. Typically vouchers are aimed at low income families, children with disabilities, or families zoned in areas with failing public schools and currently fourteen US states use the voucher system.
The Trump administration has signaled its support for an expansion of the voucher system. In budget documents released in March the administration pledged $1.4 billion dollars for the upcoming fiscal year as a down payment on a voucher program that would, according to these documents, eventually be “ramping up to an annual total of $20 billion.” The $20 billion annual cost for the program would account for a third of the current Federal education budget and would force deep cuts, about 16%, on existing programs.
Despite the attention given to the voucher system there is very little evidence that it has any positive impact on students. The voucher system does not seem to improve student achievement (measured by test scores) or educational attainment (measured by graduation rates). A 2007 study found positive impacts for African American students but a 2011 study found that voucher students perform at the same level as their public school counterparts and a recent study found that in Louisiana and Ohio the voucher system had negative impacts on students. In his paper entitled “School vouchers are not a proven strategy for improving student achievement,” Martin Carnoy argues that there is very little evidence which supports the implementation of the voucher system and that this lack of evidence ”suggests that an ideological preference for education markets over equity and public accountability is what is driving the push to expand voucher programs” (Carnoy). Because there is currently very little evidence to support the voucher system and because of the risks of the system (segregation, a loss of a common and national educational experience), it seems to be an ineffective way to enact change and to improve the American educational system which is failing the nation’s poorest children.
While education is fundamentally a local issue the federal government can have a great impact on the quality of education for American children, especially those most at risk. Programs including early childhood education, after school and summer programs, teacher training, and student nutrition programs “ yield much higher returns than [the] minor, if any, gains that have been estimated for voucher students” (Carnoy). Programs with a proven track record of success, like teacher training and early education, ought to receive funding over programs, like the voucher system, with a neutral track record.