Don’t Believe The Hype on School Vouchers

Dear Dr. Fournier:

The subject of school vouchers seems like it surfaces every few years, then fizzles out. Would you comment on whether or not they would help in fixing our schools? They seem like a pretty good idea to me.

Erin M.

Dallas, TX

Dear Erin:

I have always been hesitant to endorse school vouchers as a viable solution for the educational difficulties in this country. While they may look good on paper, there are some systemic problems in education that will still be there regardless of whether the voucher program goes national or not. I believe in addressing the culture of education in general before I worry about school placement. In other words, I am not in favor of treating symptoms while the disease remains unchecked.


School vouchers have been a hot button topic in both the educational and political arenas for many years. At one time, the idea of vouchers was presented mainly to low-income families; low performing schools, or special education programs.

Now, the debate to expand the program rages on. Proponents of vouchers will say that a free market competition from private schools will only provide more incentive to improve public schools in order to compete. They will also argue that other socialized sectors of government that have been opened to competition from the free market have benefited from the competition.

On the other hand, the opposition will point out the fact that the playing field for real competition between public and private schools is not level to begin with. Private schools can reject any applicants that they choose. If they feel that a student will require too much extra attention or proves to be too much of a liability behaviorally, they have the right to refuse them enrollment. Thus, according to Susan Goodkin and David G. Gold, ” – it is left to public schools to handle children with behavior problems or severe learning impairments, and non-English speakers. Until private schools receiving vouchers are required to accept all applicants, vouchers simply allow them to cherry-pick public school students, giving them an insurmountable competitive edge.” This is sometimes referred to as cream skimming.

In addition, standardized testing and proficiency mandates like No Child Left Behind, while well intentioned, have even further skewed the balance of power on the playing field when it comes to public versus private schooling. Private schools are not subject to sanctions from NCLB, and as a result are in a position to be more flexible with their curricula. Public school administrators and teachers are put in an unenviable position: either let the chips fall where they may concerning the standardized testing and teach with instinct and creativity, or give in to the temptation to boost scores on the standardized tests by simply teaching to the test. When this happens, a student is not learning – he or she is simply memorizing an answer.


In arguments like this one, defenders of both positions will have plenty of statistics to pull up to show why their position is the correct one concerning the subject. Even though I too have flagged a few to mention above, I think that a greater issue is being lost in this discussion of whether or not vouchers will improve the state of education in this country. The greater issue is the fact that most of our schools, whether public, private and/or charters, are still using the educational model that was used in the industrial era as the base model for educating children.

This factory model of education ignores differences in mental abilities, learning rates and learning styles. It prizes attributes and behaviors that, while desirable a century ago, have little to offer the globalized world we live in today. It is embodied in standardized testing. For education to function properly in K-12, there needs to be a smooth transition in middle school from the memorization that is necessary for basic skill mastery in elementary school to the “out of the box” divergent thinking that is the gateway to new knowledge creation in high school. Until the fact that standardized testing is stifling this transition is addressed, concerning ourselves with whether the idea of vouchers is right or wrong for the educational system is simply putting the cart before the horse.


1. By Susan Goodkin and David G. Gold The Gifted Children Left Behind August 27, 2007