Looking at Universal Vouchers

Mar 12, 2024 at 06:00 am by JC Bowman

Stakeholders in Tennessee largely support school choice, but public opinion on universal vouchers is mixed. According to polling data, it depends on state policies and program design, indicating no clear mandate.  Universal voucher legislation has been the central topic of debate in education for the Tennessee General Assembly. 

Milton Friedman wrote about the voucher movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Friedman argued that if parents were given vouchers to choose schools, competition would improve overall education.

The voucher movement was initially designed to enable parents to use vouchers to enroll their children in schools of their choice. However, law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman transformed it into an approach focused on achieving equity for underprivileged students. A primary conflict between the proposed designs for choice is whether the subsidy should be equal in dollars for all parents, regardless of their wealth. Friedman is in favor, while Coons and Sugarman are not.

Coons and Sugarman campaigned for vouchers to empower underprivileged parents and achieve equal school funding. The voucher movement's equity model has historically enjoyed more support than Milton Friedman's free-market model. Fiscal constraints, controlled spending, and state and local resources are always considerations.  

In 2022, Tennessee changed its funding model by introducing the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) Formula. This model prioritizes students' and districts' needs by providing additional funding to close gaps in achievement and opportunity. TISA uses a complex system of weights to improve academic performance through targeted interventions, ensuring equitable outcomes. By 2027 or sooner, local property taxes will likely increase to support TISA.

Tennessee is divided over universal vouchers, with differing stakeholder perspectives. On one side, proponents argue that school choice, mainly through voucher programs, has concerns about the potential consequences of diverting public funds to private schools, including the possibility of increased government regulation. Some critics view school vouchers as an entitlement program, which could lead to dependency on government funding for education decisions.

Conversely, some believe vouchers empower parents by giving them more control over their children's education. This perspective often aligns with conservative values of limited government intervention and individual choice, which results in little to no strings attached to universal vouchers.

Regarding universal vouchers, Liz Cohen is the policy director of Georgetown University’s FutureEd think tank. “It’s not income-tested; it’s not about getting the lowest-income kids in the worst schools.” Universal vouchers have been criticized for diverting taxpayer dollars to private schools and wealthy parents, thus harming public education. They also argue that universal vouchers mainly go to students already attending private schools. They worry about church-state separation, as voucher funds will go to Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and other religious schools.

Many who support universal vouchers say it will help vulnerable students who repeatedly fail and are left with inadequate school options. They believe these vouchers provide students with the education they deserve. Where critics see obstacles, they see desirable attributes. They call this “funding students instead of systems.”  Some critics have responded that Tennessee, under the TISA formula, already has student-centered public education funding.

Universal school vouchers' economic impact depends on the program's design, implementation, and broader socioeconomic context. The debate on universal vouchers highlights conflicting views on the government's role in education. Policymakers need to examine the structure of public education and the social and economic differences created by decades of funding issues addressed by the new funding formula. They must prioritize children's needs for a brighter future.

Nobody believes that there will be fewer strings on private schools over time or that public schools will remain a priority for policymakers.  “If you break it, you own it” is one of the iconic quotes from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to represent warnings ignored and unintended consequences unleashed. Supporters say vouchers can encourage choice, innovation, and efficiency, while critics cite equity, funding, and education quality issues. It is a perpetual cycle of debate. However, with an issue that is this costly and critical, we must get it right.


 JC Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

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