By Michael Kleen
Over the past several years, education reformers (as well as parents) have come to ask fundamental questions about the nature of our public school system. Why, for example, despite the ever-increasing amount of tax dollars spent per pupil in grades K-12, have increases in test scores virtually flat-lined since the 1970s? Why has improvement in the quality of K-12 education not kept pace with technological and scientific development? Why have public schools failed to properly prepare so many students for entering the workplace?
One answer is that public schools lack any incentive to produce results, innovate, to be efficient, and to make the kinds of difficult changes that private schools operating in a competitive market must make to survive. If a private school is performing poorly, or they find the curriculum lacking, parents can enroll their children somewhere else. Currently, the high property taxes that fund public schools ensure many parents are not able to afford to have that choice.
Some have advocated a voucher system as a solution to this dilemma. Essentially, voucher advocates argue tax dollars set aside for education should “follow the child” to the school of his or her parents’ choice. A check or coupon worth roughly the amount we currently spend per student in grades K-12 would be given to each child. That way, parents who want to send their children to private school, but could not afford to under the current system, would be able to use their voucher to pay for their child’s tuition.
This sounds like a nice idea, but I wonder whether the drawbacks of vouchers outweigh their benefits. First and foremost, I am skeptical that vouchers would come from the government without strings attached. Currently, parochial and other private schools are largely shielded from state and federal mandates because they do not receive public funds. If tax dollars “followed the child” to private school, what would prevent those government mandates from following as well? Under a voucher system, could the state not claim that all schools, both public and private, are receiving tax dollars and are therefore subject to its dictates? This would effectively blur, if not eventually erase, the distinction between public and private education.
Then, there is the problem of varying tuition costs. One solution to this problem would be to set the voucher amount low enough so every parent would be required to contribute some of his or her own funds toward tuition. Another solution would be for the state to simply pay all of a student’s tuition regardless of the cost.
The first of these solutions is the most reasonable, assuming the value of the voucher could be agreed upon, but the second would be disastrous. It is disastrous because every school would simply raise their tuition to the highest possible amount, knowing the government would be required to pay it.
An alternative idea, which is much simpler to enact, would put more money into the hands of parents to decide where their kids should go to school without funneling tax dollars to private and semi-private institutions. It is what I like to call the “Medicaid model of public education.”
With one piece of legislation, the State of Illinois could restrict enrollment in public schools to children of families with household incomes at or below the poverty line. This would reduce enrollment at public schools by at least 75 to 80 percent, and allow the percentage of property taxes going to local school districts to be cut by a similar amount, returning thousands of dollars a year to parents to send their children to schools of their choice. There would be no need for the complicated mechanics of a voucher program.
Under the “Medicaid model,” the very poor could still benefit from a “free” public education, and as a result of property tax cuts, might perhaps also benefit from a boost to the local economy.
Many of the familiar features of education in Illinois would remain the same. The Illinois State Board of Education would still set basic educational guidelines for all K-12 schools, and children would still be required to attend some form of school until the age of 16. It is a balanced approach that would greatly encourage private education while still making sure poor children are not left out in the cold. The increase in options for schooling, as well as the general reduction in the property tax burden, would be a great benefit to everyone living in the state.
Michael Kleen is a local author, historian, and owner of Black Oak Media. He holds a master’s degree in history and master’s degree in education. Read his previous columns online at makleen.com.
From the June 13-19, 2012, issue