So it’s vouchers time in Utah. Here are what I see as the relevant issues, minus the apocalyptic rhetoric:
Public funding and public production are two easily separable issues. We fund lots of health care and food purchases through the government, but mostly allow the production to be by the private sector. The voucher movement is an attempt to allow for some of the same in education. Whether or not this is a good idea depends on a few things.
I. There is a well grounded principle in the study of government finance that taxation and spending should try to treat equivalent people equivalently (doing so is, in the parlance, Pareto Efficient, meaning that it maximizes some agglomeration of social welfare). The big exception to this is when one person imposes a cost on those around them by their behavior, in which case you want to charge them for the cost they impose (dubbed a negative externality). Don’t let anybody tell you economists hate all taxes. There are some great reasons to impose taxes, and they typically fall into this “negative externality” camp.
The current system charges private school parents (withholds funding, the effects are identical) for not going with public education, which is probably priced at around $6000, give or take a thousand. That fee makes sense under one of two beliefs:
1. Putting your kid into private school imposes a $6000 “social” cost on your neighbors because you aren’t in the public school or
2. One finds it politically impossible to implement other ways to extract more money from the rich for redistribution (and one wishes to) so sticking it to all private school attendees is considered the next best thing.
In the first case, it is worth remembering that these kids aren’t leaving school, they are switching. Thus they will be part of a social network, just not the same one as their neighbors. They would probably be attending a pretty good school regardless, not propping up some failing system. The voucher proposition implicitly says that the social cost to the neighbors is more like $4-5000 (in the case of a 1-2 thousand dollar voucher). Not all that different.
So how do we decide what the social cost is to all your neighbors of having you leave?
One rough guess is to think about how much money those neighbors would be theoretically willing to pay to keep you in the school. On the other side, what is the least amount you could pay them to make them indifferent to you leaving?
Now, personally, I really doubt my neighbors would be willing to pool together and pay $1000 to keep my son in their public school, much less $6000 (despite his unquestioned brilliance). Thus I strongly doubt that the social cost is anywhere close to enough to justify the implicit tax. But I don’t know of any solid research on the question, so I suppose you are free to have your own beliefs about your children’s value. And remember that you must also weigh in the gains to the other private school students now blessed with the presence of your child.
Now in the second case, well, so few people in Utah go to private school, this is probably not a real good way to stick it to the rich as a group, but I guess some people will take what they can get.
Point I, above, is a really big deal, if you don’t understand it and tackle it, you are missing a fundamental issue in thinking about vouchers.
II. 3% of Utah is in private school. Thus this program really is not likely to alter the landscape too much. I think a very optimistic projection would be that after the reform, 5-6% of Utah would be private, in which case the program would more than pay for itself. Quite possibly, almost nothing would happen. In which case, the program will cost in the tens of millions, for a state educational budget in the billions. The effect would be, on an individual level, imperceptible either to increasing or decreasing total costs of state education spending.
III. Educational reform is incredibly difficult. Almost nothing has any significant, long term effect on student test outcomes. That is a skeptical take, but looking over the research, it is hard not to be skeptical. Vouchers tend to have modest positive gains. Ladd (hater) finds no positive gains in test scores among most students, Neal or Hoxby (lovers) find some positive gains. Both sides actually agree that there is one group that does gain, which is inner city blacks (of which, Utah has essentially none). The value of vouchers depends very much on the quality of the surrounding system. Utah does okay, so I would not expect large test score gains. Other outcomes are harder to track, so there is less research. What little I know tends to favor private schools as a good option.
IV. The typical use for low income vouchers is to move to the (cheap) Catholic private school system. Utah has some of these, so there are low income options for those who want them. Quite a few Utah private schools are under $5000/year. Thus the voucher could potentially make or break the deal for some families, especially when coupled with private financial aid.
V. Utah has a charter movement that is picking up steam. This is a far more likely place to see competition. They share many of the features of vouchers, but disallow state/church mixing and require the whole level of state testing and much of the regulation. A voucher law would let private schools compete on more equal footing with these schools, providing more options to parents.
VI. Public education can be justified on a lot of interesting grounds. In general, though, it is not particularly analytically useful to try to group it (or vouchers) with “welfare”.
VII. Public school teachers are normal people, so are private school teachers. They are, on average, neither saints nor villains (okay, actually, in Utah, many of them are Saints…). Teaching credentials tend to matter very little in the quality of a teacher after about three years. In fact, after about 3 years, additional experience or education shows basically no increase in the teacher’s ability to raise student test scores (the most easily measured result).
VIII. Based on early October polling, it would take a miracle for the voucher bill to actually pass. On the other hand, our state bird is the seagull…
All in all, there in no reason to get too worked up about the effects of the voucher bill on Utah. Passing it would help out some families who, for whatever reason, find that their children do better in a private school and have very little effect on the rest of us. There are beliefs that would justify either a yes or a no vote. I think I’ve outlined the basic ones. Feel free to point out (with as little melodrama as possible) relevant issues I’ve missed.