My liberal friends like vouchers. They won’t like my saying it, but it’s true all the same.
They like vouchers for housing assistance under the Section 8 program. They like vouchers for health insurance, such as the Affordable Care Act’s premium-assistance tax credits. They like vouchers for college, which is what the HOPE Scholarship and HOPE Grant amount to. They like vouchers for groceries in the form of SNAP benefits (food stamps).
If you’re confused, and wondering why I’m not talking about education when the topic is vouchers, that’s understandable. For it’s only when someone proposes letting students use the tax dollars allocated for their K-12 education outside the public school system that my liberal friends start objecting — and vilifying “vouchers” as some kind of dirty word.
A voucher is just a coupon entitling the bearer to obtain something else: rent, health insurance, college tuition, groceries. In those cases, it doesn’t even dictate what kind of a thing the bearer must choose. He’s not limited to one type of housing, or one insurance carrier, or one college, or one grocery store — much less one particular apartment complex, or one specific insurance plan, or one college major, or one brand of food.
Try to introduce a similar concept of choice for k-12 education, however, and the very same people start sounding apocalyptic.
Unlike with K-12 education, everyone recognizes that the other kinds of vouchers aren’t about propping up a system, but about meeting needs. Housing vouchers are about providing shelter in the way a family needs it, for example, as opposed to ensuring high occupancy in a government-built housing project.
It can’t merely be that we already have a sprawling network of schools built and run by the government. The same used to be true about low-income housing. The government also used to provide certain types of food directly to needy households from entities like — I am not making this up — the Cheese Inventory of the Commodity Credit Corporation.
Yet all that housing infrastructure and surplus food didn’t prevent us from moving to a different and better way of filling the same needs. In fact, when the possibility of returning to that type of nutritional assistance was raised last year, it was derided as “stigmatizing” the poor.
More “stigmatizing” than having no way out of a school where a quarter or perhaps a third of one’s peers won’t graduate?
In any case, we’ve advanced well beyond the concept of a voucher in K-12 education. If a voucher is just a coupon, one of its shortcomings is it doesn’t incentivize the bearer to be economical with its use, or for providers to be mindful about how high their prices rise.
That’s one reason the traditional school voucher has been discarded in favor of Educational Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs. Not only can an ESA be used for more than just private school tuition, such as homeschooling materials, tutoring and textbooks. But if a family doesn’t spend it all, a portion can be saved to pay for college tuition. Such flexibility and incentive to be frugal set ESAs well apart from mere vouchers.
So why do we still hear the word “voucher” in education? It’s simply because opponents have spent years demonizing the word and know it has a negative connotation for most people. They know other school-choice measures, including ESAs, are much more popular with voters, and they don’t want to debate ESA proposals on their merits. It’s easier just to brand them with the dreaded V-word (and to prod news outlets into putting their thumbs on the scale by going along with it).
Maybe conservatives who want to curtail food stamps or ACA subsidies should start calling them “vouchers,” too.
Or maybe we should recognize that we give people choices with how to use all sorts of other public assistance, and stop favoring a system over its users.