Can School Vouchers Solve Education Issues?

Caution Ahead: Could School Vouchers Solve Issues In Education?


Most Americans would agree that all children should have access to a quality education: to foster critical thinking, logic and reasoning skills while concurrently developing healthy study habits; to prepare students for their adult lives in a greater society; for the sheer joy of learning.

Then, things get complicated.

What are the roles and responsibilities of teachers, administrators and parents?  Does more funding equate to a better education, and how do we determine what is “better”?  As many critics proclaim, have our systems of public education really failed our children?

The election of Donald Trump as President and appointment and confirmation of Michigan’s own Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education have renewed calls for a voucher system to assist parents in having their child attend a school of choice.  A school of choice would generally imply a private school, including religious sponsored ones.  Existing charter schools are a hybrid school form: they must comply with public education principals and educational standards but are operated by entities outside the public school system.

The administration has proposed allocating as much as $20 billion, yes, that’s BILLION, for this program.  It is postulated by critics that some of this funding would be drawn from existing Title 1 funds (Elementary and Secondary Education Act).  These funds now go to schools with high percentages of children from low-income families, the intent being to raise academic standards within impacted schools.

Three key issues.  Without getting into a political debate or impugning the motives or character of any parties to this issue, I would like to briefly address three areas that we should consider before “jumping into vouchers.”

The idea of school vouchers is both familiar and foreign to many Americans.  The premise is both simple and complex.  As the owner of a private Montessori school, The Montessori School Rochester, vouchers fill me with reserved excitement and dread in equal parts.  In an ideal world, the vouchers will provide much needed financial support for students failing in traditional public schools.  As a community we need to look at how vouchers can improve all education standards whether they are public, charter or private.

The ideal scenario would look like this: Some of the questions raised are:

How do schools become registered in the program?  Are there standards that all schools, public and private, must meet? How will the standards differentiate between schools operating under different educational methods?  Will testing and the subsequent results be mandated to receive and renew awarded vouchers?  

For my school to willingly participate in the proposed voucher program, the standards for inclusion and renewal would have to be high. Public and private schools would both have to perform at the highest of standards to receive the voucher.  This process would force all schools to continually provide the excellence in education that schools already profess to do.  I believe it would provide the final impetus for educational reform rather than educational restructuring, which has been the current M.O for the past 25 years.  The current, slowly adapting model, is antiquated and the voucher systems might finally instigate the need for real change by the passionate educators in public schools today.

As an alternative education school, the association with the vouchers would have to protect our right to continually operate as an Authentic Montessori School, without compromise.  To compromise approach in order to meet standards dictated by the state would defeat the success of the Montessori Method in its pure form.  A diminished or modified method of alternative school models would be a disservice to students who fail or are unable to soar in traditional education.  Alternative education schools would have to collaborate with the Department of Education to ensure the preservation of Alternative Models. 

Standardized testing of the students would have to be choice driven in implementation.  Currently, our private Montessori administers are testing to the same standards as the public programs, although it is done in a non-competitive, peace driven environment, which allows for much higher accuracy in testing results.   Compromising on implementation of testing, would needlessly compromise on representation of an alternative to standardized testing currently occurring in public schools. Not only would this preserve accurate results, it would serve as a model for a much-needed revolution in the implementation of standardized testing in public and private traditional schools.

As a private school, the standards of the distribution of vouchers must be high.  A corrupt distribution program would taint high caliber private schools and cause damage to the reputation of alternative education models, therefore weakening an already weakened educational system.  With high standards in distribution will come healthy competition, even amid public schools within districts and nationwide.  Ideally, to ensure receipt of the much-needed funding, even public schools will constantly be seeking to provide the highest in educational standards. Therefore all schools will begin operating at an optimum. This ideal and the promotion of change, could forever positively impact education for children. 

Vouchers at their worst?  They corrupt public education, they corrupt charter education and they alienate alternative approaches to education. Only an unsupervised and imbalanced voucher system could do this.  As a community, we need to stop fighting against what appears to be inevitable and work together to demand that the system be implemented to the highest standards for all schools involved. 

Rather than vouchers taking away much-needed funds from Public School Education, they may force a dramatic change in what education in the future looks like. A new and updated educational system is something educators would welcome.

Joanne Yono Shango is founder and director of The Montessori School in Rochester, MI.