(The presentation of the "facts" contained below are based on my own reading. I've been reading about this subject for a while as it is interesting to me).
A little history first. The idea of school vouchers was the brain child of Nobel Laureate Economist Milton Friedman. He introduced the idea of school vouchers in an essay The Role of Government in Education published in 1955 with the following conclusion:
"The result of these measures would be a sizable reduction in the direct activities of government, yet a great widening in the educational opportunities open to our children. They would bring a healthy increase in the variety of educational institutions available and in competition among them. Private initiative and enterprise would quicken the pace of progress in this area as it has in so many others. Government would serve its proper function of improving the operation of the invisible hand without substituting the dead hand of bureaucracy."
For the most part, the voucher debate was relegated mostly to academic circles. When the idea did make its way out of the ivory tower, it was quickly opposed by Teacher's Unions. In the 1980's "school choice" became a household term. The idea was being studied and promoted by think tanks and Americans were becoming increasingly frustrated with the state of American education, especially education in the inner city. In 1990, the first voucher program was implemented in Wisconsin and a small number of other pilot programs in other locales followed.
Since the implementation of both school voucher pilot programs and charter schools (the charter school movement has sapped some of the momentum behind "school choice"), achievement results have been mixed. Without confidence in the long-term results, support isn't particularly forthcoming. Additionally (and I this is hard for some to relate to) I think many Americans generally like their children's public schools and fear that vouchers would result in diminished programming. Those who went to public schools might be able to identify programming that has been cut, even as public school budgets have increased two fold.
Another study that has sapped momentum and support for vouchers has to do with the economics of private education. There is little taxpayer and political support to subsidize those who are already paying for private school. There is even less support for supporting parochial education. Which brings us to another issue.
Taxpayers and politicians must be convinced that support for vouchers will increase access to schools, as in create greater educational choices. The price of non-sectarian private schooling in America is so extremely high, that the amount of voucher that could possibly be given to low income students simply won't make a dent. If I handed even a high income earning couple $25,000 towards the cost of a Lamborghini, will that make the Lamborghini affordable? Nope. The couple I was conversing with seemed to think that if vouchers were to pass that they would cover most of the cost of a (yeshiva) private school. Fat chance. Remember that the Utah voucher proposal voted down in 2007 by 60% of the voters, the most generous voucher proposal that I know of, would have only offered vouchers across the board in the amount of $500-$3,000 depending family income.
In the mind of the family I was conversing with, school voucher is something that Conservatives/Republicans have always supported and putting through vouchers was just a matter of gaining enough seats. My recollection tells a different story. Perhaps today it is very popular for Conservatives, including the "religious right" to support vouchers today (the support is not at all universal, even if public support makes for good talking points), but as I recall, support from conservatives was cautious and often lukewarm. And I imagine that if vouchers actually left the arena of talking points and entered the arena of consideration for widespread implementation, you would see serious debate ensue amongst Conservatives and Liberals alike. As Dr. Cordato of the John Locke Foundation (a think tank committed to individual liberty and limited, constitutional government) writes, there is a lot for liberals to like about school vouchers and a lot for conservatives not to like.
1. All Those Attached Strings
Milton Friedman writes that with the implementation of vouchers, "Government would serve its proper function of improving the operation of the invisible hand without substituting the dead hand of bureaucracy." And in theory, vouchers should introduce market competition and create efficiencies. But, as most regulate business owners know (and don't think for a second that education will not be a regulated good!!!) government money always comes with strings attached. Introducing government money into the private market will inevitably blur the distinction between public and private, eventually eroding, if not destroying, the ladder.
2. Blurring the Line Between Public and Private
This might not be politically correct, but parents often choose
I think the same holds for private schools. The administrators of private schools have no desire to admit all students. They want to hand pick their students to bolster the goals of the school and promote the vision of the school. They want to pick staff that can promote that mission and if the staff isn't "qualified" as per state standards. And most importantly, they want to pick the curriculum.
It is very tempting to support vouchers when a "system" such as ours needs rescued. But it will come at a price. One might think that should a school not want to come under the umbrella of public accountability, all they need to do is opt out and not accept vouchers. But how many schools will have the ability to opt out once there is government money on the table?
3. Welfare, Inefficiency, and Disincentives
Within the school walls, government money might in practice actually create inefficiency and make schools less accountable to parents as the government replaces the parent in the market. Additionally, if vouchers were to function like other welfare programs--a near inevitability-- you can be certain that families will be fearful of losing their benefits.
It is very tempting to support vouchers when a "system" such as ours needs rescued. But it will come at a price.
4. Threat to Limited Government, Potentially Higher Taxes
Those who desire a limited government, have every reason to fear vouchers. While most private schools parents appreciate building inspections, fire certificates, and fingerprinting, it would be naive to believe that the accountability standards that are sure to follow mass vouchers, would not result in a bigger, more powerful government. Should mass vouchers take root, the public will still need to educate those that the private sector will not educate. There are some libertarian thinkers who predict higher taxes will result when money is stripped from the public schools and only the children who are most "expensive" to educate (e.g. children with severe emotional issues or learning disabilities) are left.
5. Ultimately, a Lack of Choice
Speaking of naivete, it is comforting to believe that a certain type of education would be saved if there were only more money available to it. But, the opposite could happen. Simply put, in a mass voucher program, the government will dictate what schools parents can spend "their money" at. Those schools that engage in discriminatory practices, or that fail to teach a government approved curriculum will not make the list and their existence will be threatened. Like these schools, or not, if you want to empower parents and promote "choice", introducing artificial market factors into a the private system is sure to lack in less choice, not more, especially as time goes by and the government tightens their grip in the name of accountability to taxpayers.
I hope this serves as a good primer for those who haven't been exposed to the voucher debate (from the Conservative side) outside the confines of believing the pipe-dream of vouchers saving Yeshivot (which might also be a pipe-dream).