Debate: Should Public Funds Be Used to Support Private School Vouchers?

The following remarks from Fordham Institute president Michael Petrilli opened a debate hosted by The Century Foundation and NYU Wagner School on April 25, 2017. The question posed was whether public funds should be used to support private school vouchers. Mike, who was for the motion, faced off against Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, who was against it. Kyle Spencer, an award-winning journalist and frequent New York Times contributor, moderated. The video of this discussion is also embedded above.

This is going to be a nuanced debate because Rick and I, like most Americans, don’t come at this with extreme positions.

Rick doesn’t believe that kids should be forced to attend the school their district assigns to them, usually the one closest to their house, or that private schools should be illegal. I don’t believe that tax dollars should flow to schools without any accountability for results. We both believe in school choice—in allowing kids to choose publicly funded schools beyond their neighborhood public school. The question is how wide those choices should be, especially for families too poor to pay private school tuition, and what the conditions on the schools should be.

Rick supports public school choice, in part as a way to allow poor kids to attend more affluent public schools, and thus further the cause of integration. Same with charter schools. He’s also OK with magnet schools, even though they are selective, and thus don’t take all students. But he draws the line at private schools. Why? It can’t be because of accountability; states like Indiana and Louisiana have demonstrated that it’s possible to have voucher programs that are held accountable for student achievement. If private schools in those states don’t make enough progress with voucher participants, they get kicked out of the program.

Is it because private schools are, well, private? As in not open to everyone? But how is that different from magnet schools? Or so called public schools in affluent areas, like Bethesda, Maryland, where Rick and I both happen to live. Yes, those schools are open to the public—the part of the public that can afford homes in Bethesda, where median prices are pushing $1 million.

No, there’s really only one reason to support all of these other forms of school choice and oppose vouchers, and that’s because of religion. Rick, perhaps like many of you, is uncomfortable with tax dollars flowing to religious schools.

I get that. You’re not comfortable with what Catholic schools, or evangelical schools, or Jewish day schools, or Muslim schools teach. And you don’t want your tax dollars supporting it. But you need to realize that you are second-guessing, overruling, the wishes of parents—low income parents in particular, those who can’t afford private school tuition. Because religious schools violate your personal sensibilities, you are telling low-income families—often single mothers, often people of color—that you want to deny them a choice they want for their kid, because of your values.

If you listened to low-income families tell you why they wanted a religious school for their child, perhaps you’d change your mind. They might tell you about the sense of order, safety, and high expectations at the Catholic school down the street. About how, in neighborhoods with so little social capital, so few functioning institutions and places of authority, those schools give hope and structure to their kids that they yearn for. That the religious mission of the schools gives young poor children a sense of purpose, wonder, hope.

That might not be your jam. But if that Catholic school is doing a good job teaching kids to read, write, and do math, and prepare them for success, and it’s what their low income families want, why are you taking that choice away from them?

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider your position on vouchers.

— Mike Petrilli

Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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