To preserve as much financial responsibility for parents as possible, vouchers should be partial rather than full, and they should be phased-out at the highest income levels. A minimum co-payment of 10 percent of tuition could be required, with an optional exemption for the lowest-income parents. Exempted parents could instead be required to volunteer some amount of their time in their children’s schools, a contribution that would provide a comparable sense of personal investment as a co-payment. Once parents’ incomes reach a certain level, the value of the voucher should be gradually reduced. It should only be phased out completely for the wealthiest families, however, since we must not sacrifice universal access in our effort to maximize personal financial responsibility. Partial vouchers would not only maintain a level of parental responsibility, but would also help to control total program cost.
The Heartland Plan has been suggested as another way of both controlling costs, by fostering price competition between schools, and of maintaining parents’ financial responsibility. Under this plan, the reader will recall, parents are permitted to save any voucher funds they don’t immediately spend on tuition, and then spend these accumulated funds on school fees and tuition (including college tuition) at a later date. Heartland is to be commended for offering this innovative idea, but it is regrettably not likely to achieve its stated goals. The problem is that the voucher surplus accounts created under the Heartland Plan are not equivalent to traditional Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), as they are presumed to be. ESAs like the federal Coverdell program allow parents to save their own money in tax-free accounts. The Heartland Plan allows parents to accumulate Other People’s Money (sometimes referred to as OPiuM). Voucher surplus accounts are thus not a mechanism for increasing parents’ personal financial responsibility.
The ability of voucher surplus accounts to control the costs of a voucher program is also in serious doubt. The notion that parents would be as judicious with these funds as they would be with their own is not credible. It seems highly likely, for example, that schools would begin to charge optional “computer fees,” legally payable from voucher surplus accounts, which would basically be a conduit for parents to buy marked-up home computers with taxpayer dollars. The combined ingenuity of education entrepreneurs all over the country would be focused on finding ways to ensure that there is never a dime left in a voucher surplus account by the time the student reaches the cutoff age at which the money would be returned to state coffers.
Even if there were a sudden rash of concern among parents and business people to be thrifty with taxpayers’ money, voucher surplus accounts would simply represent a windfall for higher education. Frugal parents would economize on K-12 tuition, saving up the voucher surplus to help pay for college. Most U.S. colleges and universities could undoubtedly find something to spend this additional money on. Whether parents spend any government voucher surplus on K-12 education, or wait to spend it until college tuition bills start arriving, it is a virtual certainty that the full voucher amount will eventually be spent, nothing will be left in the account at the student’s cutoff age, and the cost of operating the voucher program will not be held in check. As a result, voucher surplus accounts are not recommended.
Regulation of Voucher-Redeeming Schools
Regulation of private schools accepting vouchers should be kept to a minimum. As argued above, no mandatory testing or curricula should be imposed. Similarly, voucher schools should not be obliged to hire only government-certified teachers or to belong to government-approved school accrediting associations. Though it would be preferable not to dictate voucher schools’ admissions policies, this is almost certainly unavoidable for legal reasons. Either a random lottery or first-come-first-served protocol would have to be specified for a voucher law to have a real chance of passing and being upheld in the courts.
Some voucher proposals include a provision meant to protect private schools from being deluged with new regulations after they begin accepting the government subsidies. When the enabling legislation is a constitutional amendment it has been suggested that it could require a supermajority in the legislature for any future regulations to be added to private voucher-redeeming schools, but this could be a very tough sell politically.
Alternately, some conventional voucher bills include language stipulating barriers to future regulatory encroachment of voucher-redeeming schools. Unfortunately, there is nothing to stop subsequent legislatures from amending any such provisions or from simply ignoring them. Consider the case of the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reserves to the states and the people any powers not enumerated in the Constitution. While quaint and heartwarming to proponents of limited government, the 10th Amendment has been repeatedly violated in often outlandish ways. The very existence of a federal Department of Education is a case in point, since neither the word education nor the word school appears in the Constitution. Still, there’s no obvious harm in having a provision against the regulation of voucher-redeeming schools, and it would at least make the enactors’ legislative intent more obvious, so there is no reason not to add such a provision.
The options for homeschooling under voucher programs are not good. If homeschoolers are not regularly inspected by the state, not required to use a state curriculum and testing package, and not obliged to hold state teaching credentials, the perceived potential for abuse and fraud is substantial and the prospects for passage through a legislature are dismal. On the other hand, if homeschoolers are brought completely under the state’s educational control and oversight, the merits and appeal of homeschooling are all but eliminated. This dilemma alone makes it best not to include homeschoolers in voucher programs.
The are two obvious techniques for phasing in a voucher program gradually while still ensuring a critical minimum level of competitive density right from the start. The first approach is to localize the program geographically, by phasing in one region or district at a time. By doing so, all the currently eligible children would be concentrated in a small enough area for them to justify the creation of new schools and engender considerable competition among both new and pre-existing schools. The second approach, which can be combined with the first, is to phase in the program by student age cohort, starting with the youngest children and working upward in age with each successive year. This approach is consistent with the common practice of starting a private or charter school to serve an initial group of young children, and then adding more advanced classes as the students grow older. Note that it is best to use student age ranges rather than grades for this phase-in because rigid age-based grading is frequently dispensed with by market education systems. Market schools often use performance-based grading under which children are promoted from one level to the next based on mastery of the material.