Currently, the American public school system is a sprawl-generating machine: urban public schools are less appealing to middle-class parents than suburban public schools, causing parents to move to suburbia.
This result arises from school assignment laws: because students must attend school in the municipality of their residence, residents of the most diverse municipalities (usually central cities) must attend diverse schools. By definition, diverse schools have lots of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Because children from disadvantaged backgrounds often learn less rapidly than middle-class children, these schools quickly get a reputation as “bad” schools, causing middle-class parents to flee to suburban schools that are more socially homogenous.
The common progressive answer to this problem is to fund urban schools more generously: this strategy has not, when tried, succeeded in bringing middle-class parents back to urban schools. For example, in 1990s Kansas City, federal courts forced government to fund urban schools far more generously than suburban schools: nevertheless, test scores barely budged and urban schools continued to lose middle-class and white parents. Even successful urban charter schools (such as New York’s Harlem Success Academy) have failed to bring back middle-class parents.
A more market-oriented solution to the problem of sprawl-generating school systems is to break the link between residence and schooling, so that city residents would not be limited to urban neighborhood public schools.
One possible option is some form of a voucher system. Under the purest form of a voucher system, parents who choose to avoid public schools would be given public funds to pay the cost of private schools. Under such a system, parents would have little reason to avoid city neighborhoods: they could stay in the city, and their children could attend private schools for the same amount of money that they would spend on public schools (that is, zero). Such voucher systems have occasionally been tried for low-income students or students in the worst urban schools, but have never, as far as I know, been applied to middle-class students whose parents might be tempted by suburbia.
However, such a voucher system might suffer from two practical difficulties. First, many private schools are more expensive than public schools. Most urban school systems spend roughly $10,000 per pupil– roughly comparable to the average private school tuition. However, many private schools are far more expensive. The average secular private high school charges over $20,000 per year.
If vouchers covered the entire cost of private school tuition, educational costs to taxpayers would increase. On the other hand, if vouchers merely covered the cost of the average public school, they would merely reduce the cost of many private schools by only about half (and presumably less in high-cost regions)- enough to do some good, but arguably not enough to deter much migration to suburbia.
A second difficulty is that (assuming that existing public schools remain open) even a limited voucher system might increase municipal costs, because government’s public school expenses would not decrease as fast as its private school expenses would increase. Imagine a voucher system in which the money follows the child- that is, each voucher is $10,000, and so if a public school loses a child to a private school, that school loses $10,000. If all of the child-losing schools’ costs varied with attendance, these schools would be no worse off: that is, they might have fewer children, but they would have fewer expenses.
But in fact this is not the case, because some of the public schools’ costs are presumably fixed, such as the costs of buildings and maintenance. So if a public school that spends $8000 per pupil loses 10 pupils under a voucher system, its costs will not go down by $80,000. Instead, its costs might not decrease at all. A voucher system that fails to account for this difficulty might cause reduced spending on public schools. If this outcome is undesirable, a city has two choices: to spend more money on the school system as a whole, or to fund private schools at some level below the average per pupil expenditure, thus allowing public schools to spend as much money as they do now. Under the latter scenario, parents would be able to save less private school tuition due to vouchers, thus reducing their anti-sprawl impact.
Does this mean vouchers are not worth trying? Absolutely not. Even a weak voucher system would have some anti-sprawl impact. But vouchers are subject to a trade-off: the more choice vouchers provide to parents, the less likely they are to be cost-neutral. A “strong” voucher system (that is, one that fully funds education at any private school in a region) is likely to be more expensive than the current educational system, but would make cities far more competitive. A smaller, cheaper voucher system will do less for cities, but will be less costly for taxpayers.
davidw saysMarch 29, 2016 at 6:13 pm
One thing that makes me nervous about vouchers is that some see them as a way to move children and money towards religious educations.
Imagine a town where everyone belongs to religion X except for a small percentage of people. If X provides a school, and everyone gets vouchers that let them go there, they can all desert the public schools, leaving the small percentage in the unenviable position of going to an underfunded public school with few people, or going to a school where they’re forced to deal with religion X.
If there are some requirements about where vouchers can go, then they sound like an experiment that’s worth trying.
Mark Nelson saysMarch 30, 2016 at 1:24 am
The religious schools question has led to a political shift over the issue in Denmark, which has a school voucher system. The right-of-center traditionally supported vouchers, on classical liberal type grounds (individual freedom, market mechanisms, etc.). But in recent years, the fastest-growing use of vouchers is by immigrant parents who wish to send their children to religious schools, predominantly Islamic schools. That has led to a rapid shift in opinions on the Danish right, parts of which now want vouchers abolished, on grounds that it’s desirable for all children to attend the public schools, where they can be inculcated with common civic values.
In the U.S. things would probably play out differently, since the largest group of people opting out of the public school system on religious grounds are evangelical Christians, and the argument that uniform public education helps inculcate common values is more popular on the left than the right (which attacks it as government overreach / liberal brainwashing). But it’s interesting how these politics intersect.
Kenny Evitt saysMarch 31, 2016 at 7:19 am
I wonder how much of the greater price or cost of private school tuition is because of large fixed costs. I’d imagine that the marginal cost of one child enrolling isn’t that much, but the full cost is probably also covering past, and maybe even future, costs like real estate and administration.
I’ve also read that per-pupil costs for public schools are much more comparable when all costs are included.
jeffB saysMarch 31, 2016 at 4:43 pm
Is there any data on how this is working in Philadelphia which has a strong voucher system (charter schools)?
pluviosilla saysApril 2, 2016 at 11:52 am
I don’t understand why you make the assumptions you make about the fixed costs of public school infrastructure. Adapting to ups and downs is perhaps the principal challenge facing any business. If competition forced public schools to learn that kind of adaptability, it would be salutary, and anyway, in a full-blown voucher system, why would there be a need to draw a distinguish between “public” and “private”? The goal is a public good (education) not a public building.
hcat saysApril 4, 2016 at 7:49 am
I’ve read Fischel on this. Vouchers are best applied in large urban school districts. The suburbs will resist them.