While some countries such as Sweden and Chile have working school voucher systems, the topic of these vouchers in the United States is an issue of much contention. School vouchers are given to parents by the government and are applied to tuition at a private school that the child attends in place of the public school which the student otherwise would have attended. School vouchers were first used in the United States in the 19th century, and became heavily used again during the Civil Rights era. During this time, southern states issued the vouchers as ways to undermine desegregation efforts, letting students attend “segregation academies” instead of the public schools.
Modern-day vouchers do not sanction or allow any form of discrimination or segregation. Rather, they are aimed at letting parents have more control over where their tax dollars are spent. The voucher allows the parents to direct their tax dollars that otherwise would have been spent on public schools towards an institution that may increase their child’s academic performance. Republican views on school vouchers are extremely positive. They support providing parents with more choices regarding their child’s education, and hopes that the system can combat the “one size fits all” approach to education that they feel is currently hurting America.
School Vouchers and Competition
One of the major reasons that Republicans support school vouchers is that they bring free market economic concepts into the school system. The ability for parents to select the best school for their child will lead schools to compete to be the best. This provides additional motivation for schools to increase performance. Better performing schools will therefore attract more students, and have an easier time maintaining quality, while schools with lower performance will be forced to improve performance to stay open. This theory has been proven successful at a university level, and Republicans see no reason that it cannot be just as successful at lower grade levels.
Those who oppose school vouchers argue with this logic, stating that since vouchers are often not for the full tuition amount, they let wealthy families select the better schools over low-income families, leaving the already underprivileged left further behind.
Beyond allowing students to attend private schools, Republicans believe that educational choice and school vouchers should continue to be expanded. Many Republicans believe that vouchers should apply to religious schools, despite opposition that this is unconstitutional. They also wish to increase the availability of education in single-sex classes, schools with full-day hours and year-round schools.
D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is the first federally-funded school voucher program in the U.S. Republicans hope that this program can serve as a platform for the rest of the country to mimic. In its first year the program provided slots for 1615 students. Upon initial review, the Obama administration agreed only to provide level funding, not to expand the program. However, after much controversy, the administration agreed to finance slots for 85 additional students, bringing the program up to 1700 students. Republicans pushed hard for this expansion, as analyses of 1700 hundred students “allow for a statistically valid evaluation of the program, as directed by Congress.” The program focuses on providing vouchers to low-income children in the area, allowing them to attend private schools.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated that, in addition to analyzing the program’s success, Republicans are committed to seeing public schools reformed as well. School vouchers are meant to work in conjunction with, not against, the existing educational system. Duncan stated, “We remain convinced that our time and resources are best spent on reforming the public school system to benefit all Students and we look forward to working with Congress in a bipartisan manner to advance that goal.”
President Obama spoke out, stating that his own feelings about the program had to be put aside in order to test its success, stating, “If there was any argument for vouchers, it was ‘Alright, let’s see if this experiment works,’ and if it does, then whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids. I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn. We’re losing several generations of kids and something has to be done.”
While many have opposed the program, Boehner believes that it is benefiting the students that are able to take advantage of it, stating, “For eight years, the scholarship program has empowered low-income parents to choose the best learning environment for their children. “Thousands of families have taken advantage of this scholarship program to give their children an opportunity to succeed in life, and there’s strong evidence that it’s both effective and cost-effective.”
Research on the program has been conflicted. A 2008 study by the U.S. Education Department concluded that students in the D.C. program for two years showed “no statistically significant difference in test scores” than students that were not in the program. However, it did find “a positive impact on overall parent satisfaction.” A 2010 Education Department report showed more positive results. This analysis concluded that 82 percent of Opportunity Scholarship participants graduated from high school, as opposed to 70 percent of students who applied but did not receive vouchers.
Charles Barone, policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, a Democratic advocacy group that is “agnostic” on the issue of vouchers, spoke out regarding the participant’s satisfactionn with the program. He stated, “When you’re in D.C. and you look at the kids getting these scholarships, there’s a strong coalition of parents focused on continuing it. It’s hard to be the bad guy and say kids aren’t going to get them anymore.”
Donald Trump on School Vouchers
Donald Trump is a strong supporter of school vouchers. His beliefs revolve strongly around the economic theory of vouchers – that they promote competition and therefore better the system, stating “Education reformers call this school choice, charter schools, vouchers, even opportunity scholarships. I call it competition-the American way.” Trump believes that students in public schools will benefit from this competition as much as those utilizing vouchers, stating, Who’s better off? The kids who use vouchers to go to the school of their choice, or the ones who choose to stay in public school? All of them. That’s the way it works in a competitive system.”
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