An education voucher is also known as a school voucher. It is a certificate that enables parents to pay for their children’s education at a school of their own choice rather than the public school made mandatory for their children to attend. This concept is not a new one, it was proposed as early as the 1950s by famous economist Milton Friedman who intended this to be the way of promoting competition among schools and consequently lead to enhancement of education quality. Since then, countries all over the world have introduced vouchers in their education reforms but this has been the most controversial area in education as it has split views owing to differing ideologies and the stance of unions in education.
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Education vouchers work to ultimately serve the purpose of providing a better quality of education to students. For example, in Cleveland, vouchers are funded through public finances and are then given to students hailing from low-income backgrounds within the Cleveland City school district. Lotteries are used to allocate vouchers to students and the system is very much in place in public as well as private schools. The financial coverage provided by the voucher varies according to the income classes the families fall in and the amount of tuition charged by the school of choice: for families with an income 200% lower than the poverty line, the voucher is equivalent to 90% of the tuition; for families with a higher income, the voucher has a value of 75% of the tuition.
Charlotte (North Carolina), Dayton (Ohio), Milwaukee (Wisconsin), New York City, and Washington D.C. use education vouchers to target students from low-income families similar to the example mentioned in Cleveland above. Still, there are other cities where a different approach is followed. In Florida, the voucher program was implemented to create an incentive for schools that were not performing so well to enhance their quality standards. In Vermont, the voucher program targets students in towns lacking a public school or with public schools of inadequate capacity. Therefore, vouchers, financed via public funding, are provided to students to pay for tuition at public or private schools.
Vouchers have a positive impact on the education system. For one, they increase parental choice and since the government provides educational funding via vouchers, parents have more of a say in ‘shopping’ for schools. Education vouchers also play a role in ensuring greater access to public and private schools for students from low-income families.
The program also aims to promote school competition. There is a common perception that public schools are inefficient and bureaucratic. Hence, education vouchers challenge schools to compete with each other to retain students and project an image of being a high-quality education provider. The competition will also lead to decrease costs, higher quality, and dynamic innovations in education. In a competitive environment where education providers compete with each other to attract and retain students, there is usually more efficient use of resources and consequently, a higher quality of education provided. In this regard, the voucher program is one of the most commonly used tools for increasing competition in the education sector.
However, critics of the school voucher program have several issues regarding it. One of their concerns is that it will drain money from the schools that need it the most. This is not a valid concern because if the ultimate aim of the program is accomplished, that is, if the quality of education in the country is enhanced, then the effect of this will, in all likelihood, trickle down to all institutions, public or private. While it is true that currently, voucher programs are focused on schools that struggle the most, these schools are the ones that need to be focused upon as their utilization of tax dollars and operations need serious help. And what needs to be remembered is that in time, the competition fostered by the voucher programs will lead to the elimination of a lot of the problems which currently plague the education system such as selfish teachers’ unions, unmotivated civil servants, and an outdated curriculum.
Another concern which critics attribute to this program is that while it is marketed as a plan for low-income students and families, in the end, it is most beneficial to the wealthy and religious families. The voucher program does serve the interests of the religious but that is precisely a part of its function, as mentioned earlier: to give parents choices to decide what they want to do. This fact is an essential part of its very appeal. And regarding the unwanted consequence of the program that makes it beneficial to the wealthy classes, legislation could be introduced to prevent this minor issue with the program, but it doesn’t make the program ineffective, or unsuccessful, or unnecessary. There are glitches to every policy and every plan but those can be ironed out. The program should not be scrapped altogether because of them.
The underlying premise of the program is to use competition between public and private schools to raise the standard of education on the whole. It is not to force students out of public schools into mandatory private schools. It is to enhance the bar for all students and schools, especially failing public schools that will as a consequence of this program face real pressure to correct their flaws. This is what proponents of the voucher program have been trying to advocate since its inception. The “free market” competition that it hopes to promote in schools will provide schools with an incentive to improve. Schools that will be successful will attract a greater number of students. On the other hand, schools not performing well will be forced to either reform or close down. The system will incorporate accountability for performance within its structure instead of relying on standards imposed by the government.
In conclusion, school vouchers will offer low-income students opportunities to attend private schools which were previously inaccessible for them. It will promote school choice and reduce the income classifications which plague public and private schools currently. It will help foster a competitive climate which will subsequently improve the performance of public schools, in the same way, that competition improves the performance of people and companies. Private colleges have been following a similar system for years now, as students utilize government loans and grants to attain higher education. The same method can be applied to schools in the form of the education voucher program. It might lead to a few fundamental structural changes in the education system, but in time, schools will shape up and flourish with a renewed vigor.