Who Wants School Vouchers?

Vouchermaps2000A Andrew Gelman had a post on public support for school vouchers earlier this week. I held back on a response for a few days, because the Iran thing was occupying my attention and because I'm a little sick of talking about school vouchers. Is there anything new to be said? Maybe. Voucher support may be a proxy for the continuing fault lines about schools and class.

Gelman finds that voucher support is strongest among the very rich and the poor, particularly among Latinos. OK, now we need a little qualitative information to fill in the gaps.

The very rich are supportive school vouchers. Their support is mostly ideological. The actual proposed amounts for vouchers is a drop in the bucket for their private school tuition. Their schools would probably not even accept school vouchers. Non-Catholic, private schools have never been supportive of vouchers. The very rich tend to be supportive of all market-based, public policy solutions.

The middle class, regardless of party affiliation, has been opposed to school vouchers. Despite complaints about donuts in schools or math curriculum, the middle class likes their schools well enough. They have no interest in tearing down the entire system. There is also some fear about kids from poorer neighborhoods using their schools. The only way that Cleveland's school voucher program got through their legislature was by assuring the surrounding suburbs that no city kid would redeem a voucher at their school.

There is a racial component, but that's not the full picture. In New Jersey, some regional schools are getting torn apart, because the parents from the richer white neighborhoods don't want to subsidize the less rich white kids in the next town.

The poor have always shown a great deal of support for school vouchers. Some polls show nearly 90% of single, black mothers support vouchers. Latinos have always shown very high support for vouchers. Of course, these numbers have been questioned. Some say that if you ask a follow up question and ask the respondent "what are school vouchers," they can't answer that question. Still, what this shows is a profound dissatisfaction with public schools in poor, urban areas, and a willingness to try anything to fix them. 

Latinos are also very likely to be using the Catholic schools in the cities, which are struggling. Without nuns to teach the classes, the schools are being shut down or tuition is going up. The schools, while perhaps not succeeding at suburban, middle class levels, are doing an adequate job of educating their kids. The parents feel that their children, particularly the girls, are safer in that environment. They may be working three jobs to send their kids to those schools.

The Catholic schools have been slow to support school vouchers. As late as the mid-1980s, they lobbied against them, because they didn't want governmental involvement in their schools. Recent budget problems led to a reversal in this position. Still, it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church is leading the voucher movement.

Evangelicals are split on the issue of vouchers. The hard-line types are against them. They are either home-schooling their children or have extreme distrust of the government. More moderate evangelicals and Baptists are in favor of them. Black Baptist churches in urban areas are supportive, because many of them are opening small schools in their church basements.

Rural areas are opposed to them. There are no private or Catholic schools nearby. No benefits for them.

Within state legislatures, there has been very little support for school vouchers. In strong union states, the Democratic party has close ties with the union and only a few renegade Black, urban Democrats have supported them. While Republicans are ideologically in favor of vouchers, all politics is local and the Republican leaders from the suburban areas oppose the vouchers. State legislatures have only succeeded in passing small pilot programs in the states, when a particularly strong policy entrepreneur pushes the policy through.

Most of the strongest voucher supporters from the 80s and 90s have moved on to other issues, because the political obstacles are too great. They are pushing homeschooling and computer aided education. Still, it is interesting that academics keep talking about them. It shows the power of a powerful and simple idea.

I like Gelman's chart not because it tells us something about vouchers, but because it shows us the class divide in education. There is a profound unhappiness with schools among the poor. This message is really important, and we need to keep talking about that.

46 thoughts on “Who Wants School Vouchers?

  1. I was talking about school vouchers with my very well off, but saddled with four kids close in age brother-in-law a while back. He is for vouchers. I am not against them, but I think they won’t help me at all. If private schools accepted them, I think the amount I’d receive in voucher money wouldn’t be enough to cover the cost and my public school isn’t so bad. I recognize that my position on vouchers is tied to that reality, which is a personal one and not representative of a large portion of society who probably would benefit significantly. Honestly, if they want to put some inner city kids in our school, go ahead. A little diversity would be good.

  2. “There is a profound unhappiness with schools among the poor.”
    We don’t have vouchers around Pittsburgh, but we do have charter schools. As near as I can tell, those are popular among two groups. First, the middle/upper middle class whites in my area, some of whom started their own ‘envirnomental charter school’. The other group is African-Americans in neighborhoods where the public schools have graduation rates below 50%.

  3. MH, my dissertation was on the politics of school vouchers in OH and PA. I spent a lot of time talking with school leaders in Harrisburg and Philadelphia about voucher/education politics. I waddled around Harrisburg nine months pregnant interviewing people. Wow, that was ten years ago.

  4. PA has vouchers? Did not know that. My opinion is that I’m opposed to vouchers on the “keep the govt out of the schools” grounds you mention above. If I thought it could smack the local teachers’ union, I might switch sides.
    P.S. I’ve never been to Harrisburgh and I’ve only been to Philly once. As near as I can tell, this is pretty typical around here. Pittsburgh pays attention to Ohio and West Virginia (though they don’t like to admit the later). Philly is just some place that keeps trying to take our guns.

  5. “The very rich are supportive school vouchers. Their support is mostly ideological. The actual proposed amounts for vouchers is a drop in the bucket for their private school tuition.”
    I think there’s a lot of NE tunnel-vision in voucher discussions, where it tends to be assumed that all the good private schools cost at least $20,000 a year. In flyover country, $6,000-$10,000 per child gets you an awful lot at a private school, even outside the Catholic system.

  6. For the reasons you note above, I’m not surprised they failed to get vouchers. The Democrats won’t break with the unions and the Republicans are either rural Protestants or suburbanites with nice schools.

  7. “In flyover country, $6,000-$10,000 per child gets you an awful lot at a private school, even outside the Catholic system.”
    In flyover country, at least the parts of it that I’m familiar with, the public schools tend to be better (or at least safer) and there are very few non-Catholic privates schools (and most of those are schools run by Evangelical protestants).
    I suppose that Pittsburgh is flyover country for most people in New York and CA, but I can’t think of a non-sectarian private school in town that is under $10k.

  8. Most voucher proposals are only for around $2,000.
    The middle-class population in private or Catholic schools is extremely small. Not enough to make a blip on a Gelman statistical model or enough to convince a state legislator to change his vote.

  9. We live in Chicago, and the kids attend a decidedly non-evangelical Lutheran school. Tuition for two elementary kids last year was $8K. The waiting list for this school is as long as your arm, as you can imagine.
    We do get what’s basically some tuition support in Illinois, in the form of a tax break on that tuition — I want to say $600? You deduct it not from your income but from the taxes you owe, about 5 lines from the end of your state tax form.

  10. I had an attack of curiosity, and I looked up Jewish schools in Pittsburgh. The first one I found was Yeshiva Schools. It’s Lubavitcher-connected and the tuition is $8500 for 1-8th grade, but there are a boatload of various fees.
    As a rule, the more sectarian, the cheaper. Sandra Tsing Loh has a brilliant chapter on this in her book Mother on Fire where she chronicles her attempts to find the right LA school for her child. I blogged it back in October.
    http://xantippesblog.blogspot.com/2008/10/mother-on-fire.html
    “Having our kids taught evolution is clearly an economic luxury. We have to be realistic. In this day and age, perhaps Darwinism is not a theory our family can actually afford…”

  11. $2,000 is far less than the incentive (college scholarship) that you get for attenting the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

  12. I’m guessing that Yeshiva schools don’t take many gentiles. However, I do have a Greek Orthodox neighbor who went three high schools (public, Yeshiva, and Catholic). He didn’t get more specific than to say that the transfers were for disciplinary reasons. Some day I’ll have to ask him about the order in which he went to the schools.

  13. I like the maps, but don’t like the averaging over the state. I think state level maps can be pretty misleading. They’re still relevant when decisions are made at a state level, but our perception of *who* supports vouchers might be skewed if we’re looking at state level maps (especially true if conservative rural folks aren’t supporting them). I’m not sure why you say that rich people (>175K?) support vouchers for ideological reasons. I think they support them because they frequently send their kids to private schools (probably even more likely in rural/conservative areas) and see it as a tax break (i.e. money in their pocket).
    I do believe that the catholic church now has an official position in favor of vouchers. Is that not the case? I don’t really know how the Catholic church develops official positions on such issues, but I think they were a litigant in the Ohio cases.
    I’m vehemently opposed to vouchers in every form I’ve seen (all of which I see as basically producing a public subsidy for religious education). But, there’s one form that I’d consider, though it might be unworkable: an opt in system for public education, like I hope we’ll get soon for health care. There would be a public education system, and people could opt in to pay for it. They’d have to start paying at least as soon as they have children (it wouldn’t be an opt in/opt out system); the amount paid would be needs based; and you’d have to maintain continuous “coverage” even if you opted out of the system, in order to continue to have access.
    My system doesn’t deal with imigrants; it’s complicated since I’m asking for needs-tested payments; it doesn’t deal with people who decide to not educate their children — but I guess education would have to be mandatory. That would be difficult to enforce, especially with home schoolers. So lots of problems. But, schemes along these lines could avoid my basic objection, which is that I’m not willing to subsidize religious services (including education).

  14. “I’m not sure why you say that rich people (>175K?) support vouchers for ideological reasons. I think they support them because they frequently send their kids to private schools (probably even more likely in rural/conservative areas) and see it as a tax break (i.e. money in their pocket).”
    The rich wouldn’t directly benefit because their high end private schools would never accept school vouchers. Those schools have their own interest groups. Those interest groups have clearly stated that they oppose school vouchers. The schools are milked enough money from the rich folks; they don’t need a couple of pennies from the gov’t. Especially when that gov’t would probably make them admit special ed students and impose other sorts of regulations.
    The Catholic church has been very mixed on school vouchers. The Catholic Church has its own political arm, and they haven’t really pushed for that hard. There have been cases of individual church leaders, like the Bishop in Philadelphia, pushing for it. And individual Catholic lay people have been lobbying for it, like Ridge in PA. But they haven’t been leading the troops. They may have signed the amicus brief in OH, but the main proponent for vouchers in OH was one guy – a highly connected, rich industrialist from Akron.

  15. I’m guessing that a bishop’s opinion on vouchers will be highly correlated with the numbers of non-Catholics in the Catholic schools in his diocese and that will be highly correlated with the number of African-Americans in the diocese.

  16. “The rich wouldn’t directly benefit because their high end private schools would never accept school vouchers”
    Well, it would depend on what strings were attached to the money, just like for public schools. The heavyweight private schools (i.e places like Philips Exeter) and elite local privates with less well known followings accepted federal scholarships happily (in the 70’s & 80’s). (I believe I received such a scholarship, and suspect that that deal was part of the funding for Obama’s education at Punahou). Those scholarships were specifically directed at increasing diversity, but that’s an issue for all private schools, and many would be eager to accept to vouchers to help with their funding.
    And yes, my kid (and kids next year) attend a expensive private school that’s going to have a harder time being “need-blind” in a down economy. The strings would matter, but all private schools are hurting in this economy.

  17. I wish we could have a system where each child in America had the same money “attached” to them at birth (or when they arrived in country). It could increase (if necessary) as they aged but that money would be paid to either 1. the parent(s) if the child was at home until age 6 or whenever school becomes mandatory, or 2. to the daycare that they child attends until age 6. This would allow stay at home parents some payments still going into their Social Security accounts while also recognizing that there is value to stay at home parenting. It might also have a nice leveling effect on day care costs if there was an amount that all children came with to help working parents.
    Once the child reaches school age, the amount might increase – but that money would either be directly paid to the school of the parents’ choice, or to the parents if they chose to homeschool. However, if parents did choose to homeschool – their children would then need to demonstrate proficiency in subject matter at the end of each year (age/developmentally appropriate).
    I think this system could be great – equalizing the amt of money each child brings to any school, acknowledging the value of parental choice in raising children, supporting parents who choose to work outside the home, and also bringing greater transparency to homeschooling. It could also make schools truly compete for the money they need to run. It would give parents real choice as opposed to what we have now. And it would be fair.

  18. “I wish we could have a system where each child in America had the same money “attached” to them at birth (or when they arrived in country).”
    Isn’t that what the “child exemption” (or whatever you get when you fill out your taxes) is for? And, these days, don’t we even have some kind of credit, for people who don’t pay enough taxes?

  19. “I’m guessing that a bishop’s opinion on vouchers will be highly correlated with the numbers of non-Catholics in the Catholic schools in his diocese and that will be highly correlated with the number of African-Americans in the diocese. ”
    Why?

  20. BJ,
    Most Catholics schools do not charge sufficient tuition to cover their operating costs. Most parish Catholic schools don’t even come close. My high school charged $900/year and it cost $4,000 per year to educate a kid (this was the late 80s). The schools make-up the difference through donations from alumni and parishoners. Those who give the most usually have kids in that school (having children and tithing are both related to how observant of a Catholic you are).
    In many urban areas, the parishoners with money to donate (especially families with kids) are gone to the suburbs. Sometimes the schools go with the Catholic familes, but frequently they would leave the schools open and serve the people who were there. In North Eastern and Midwestern cities, this is usually the African-American population who are dissatisfied with the public schools. These schools can’t support themselves from the local parish (which either doesn’t exist or has become disproportionately poor), or from the parents of the kids. The diocese will fund these schools to a certain extent, but resources are limited and everybody is very likely to be alert for any new money.

  21. bj,
    I believe the dependent credit (or whatever you call it) used to be a lot more generous than it is now.
    MH,
    I look forward to your answer to bj’s question. Intuitively, I think you’re right, but I don’t know why.

  22. Interpreted for non-Catholics, I’m thinking MH’s explanation is the following: traditionally parents of kids in Catholic schools paid for the school in two ways 1) tuition 2) a voluntary contribution through their parish/diocese (which was tax-deductible, and counted towards “tithing”). Others (in the parish) also contributed to #2. In poor areas of town, #2 is no longer available, and they’re looking for substitute funding.
    Private schools play the same game, but rely on covering a greater portion of costs through #1, because #2 is less reliable (and can’t be averaged among different parishes — I presume that all the money donated in a parish doesn’t stay in that parish? Don’t know if that’s true for churches or not). It’s convenient if a significant portion of the operating costs of the school can be collected through #2 (voluntary contributions) because they’re tax deductible. So, if I pay 15K in tuition, but make a 10K contribution, I’m paying 22K for school (at the 30% tax bracket), but the school is getting 25K. But, it’s not a stable source of funding (that voluntary contribution), and it depends on your population base (i.e. is an additional cost of giving a spot to a child who needs aid, because they probably won’t be making big contributions).

  23. “I presume that all the money donated in a parish doesn’t stay in that parish?”
    Yes, that’s right. The diocese collects and redistributes funds among the parishes.

  24. BJ,
    Yes, except that:
    1. Most Catholic schools would collapse tomorrow if they had to spend anything close to $15k per pupil.
    2. Most Catholic school funding comes from people below the 30% tax bracket.
    3. Most money collected in a parish does stay in that parish, except for special collections which will be clearly identified as such. (There is a levy for the diocese, but that’s usually waived if the parish is running a high schhol.) It works somewhat differently in areas (like Pittsburgh) where the parishes only runs grade schools and the high schools are run by the diocese or religious orders.
    Also, the diocese will set standards. For example, when I was there, the archbishop of Omaha required the schools to pay a salary of not less than 90% of what the public school teacher were paid.

  25. One of the features of Catholic school tuition rates that I’ve seen are very steep sibling discounts. Before we left DC, I was feverishly researching parochial schools. As I recall, circa 2006, there were quite a number of parochial schools in the DC metro area where you could get all-you-can-eat K-8 for under $10,000. For a large family, it would be an amazing bargain. Of course, that must require a serious subsidy.
    In Texas, we were paying about $5,000 a year at a multi-denomational (but mainly liturgical Baptist) school for K and 1st grade before the school decided to start raising teacher salaries. (Full-time teachers had previously been making $28,000 a year.) There are from 8 to 13 kids in each class and separate teachers for art, music, PE, and Spanish in the lower grades. We’ve just started paying just under $10,000 a year, which will cover 2nd grade for our oldest and 3 full days of pre-K for our youngest, starting in the fall.

  26. “(Full-time teachers had previously been making $28,000 a year.)”
    The Lincoln diocese was paying less than that. My mom was complaining that the pay was so low the only way you could afford to work there is if you were married, your kids were grown or in school, and you wanted to donate to the church anyway. I pointed out that she’d just described herself and she smacked me.

  27. “Most Catholic schools would collapse tomorrow if they had to spend anything close to $15k per pupil. ”
    Yes, I understand that. (and, the private school in this model doesn’t *spend* 15K/pupil. It charges that much. It probably spends closer to 20K/pupil).
    The differing benefit of the tax deduction is interesting to ponder. It’s definitely a big part of the advantage for fundraising for private schools.
    But, one of the prime parts of the Catholic School model was (is?) paying teachers below market.
    bj
    PS: Does it mean something when a catholic high school has a “bishop” in its name, like in “bishop watterson”

  28. No, ‘Bishop’ in the name doesn’t mean anything more than somebody really liked that bishop. If it has ‘Central’, ‘Regional’, or some point of geography in the name, that is a good indicator that it isn’t a parish-run school. If the school takes only boys and is usually in contention for one or more state championships, that means the Jesuits or another religious order probably run the school. Jesuits are like Big 10 universities. Given the choice between helping two deserving youths, they will often pick the one who runs fastest.
    And, of course, from the private school point of view, the tax deduction for donations is more than off-set by the taxes everybody else doesn’t have to pay because of the kids who aren’t in public schools.

  29. “…they will often pick the one who runs fastest.”
    Or take both if the slower one looks like a good blocker. Anyway, the religious orders tend to run the costlier, more prestigious schools. They are far more likely to have an endowment, to be paired with a university, and to give scholarships for anything other than need. They generally can raise more money from their alumni than other Catholic schools.

  30. “The Lincoln diocese was paying less than that. My mom was complaining that the pay was so low the only way you could afford to work there is if you were married, your kids were grown or in school, and you wanted to donate to the church anyway. I pointed out that she’d just described herself and she smacked me.”
    Our school started as a co-op earlier this decade, so there were initially no salaries. There are still wall-to-wall teacher and administrator kids.

  31. Sasha (and I apologize for the non-timeliness of this response), many homeschooling parents would not want government money with strings attached. Most homeschoolers’ education paradigm differs radically from the common conception of education, and they don’t want to be measured by the same metrics (http://tinyurl.com/mw2s24). Do you really think homeschooling is a problem that needs to be fixed? By a government that is by many standards not doing a great job at education in general?
    Would you want to see the parents of preschoolers also meet certain standards in order for them to receive any money?
    Some money would be nice, but I’m not holding my breath. Homeschoolers are last on the list for both money and reform — and they should be. According to a recent British study, “informal learning at home is an ‘astonishingly efficient way to learn’, as good if not better than school for many children.” http://tinyurl.com/m2rmqn

  32. MH, it is not nice to taunt a woman who just got back from a 3+ hour dance recital. And has to do it again tomorrow. I may be incapable of coherent speech for at least a week.

  33. Alison
    I wasn’t trying to say that I thought homeschooling was a problem to be fixed. I was only trying to stay consistent with the idea of attaching an amount of money to each child to be used for educational purposes.
    To be a bit clearer – this type of money is not the same as the dependent money that some people qualify for on their taxes – an amt that does very little to actually help families sustainably raise children. With my idea (which may very well be unsustainable or unrealistic) each child would have, let’s say, $7,500 – $10,000 attached to them at birth. This money would be paid to either the parent or to a daycare provider. Maybe that figure is a bit low – maybe it should be somewhere around $15,000. But it should be a sum that would actually be large enough to either significantly help a parent have a choice on whether to stay home or send their child to daycare and go back to work without either choice having a negative impact on having enough money for the necessities of raising a child. If you had 3 children – you would receive the same payment for each child ($45,000 until the child went to school). This amt could be reduced as the child gets to school age – maybe somewhere between $8,000 – $10,000 to go to the school of the parents choice. Enough money to actually compare to what many schools spend on a per pupil basis to make this money actually be useful in terms of choosing which school someone wanted to send their child to (which should reduce the automatic “vouchers being used for religious education because that is all they would pay for” issue. Instead the funds would actually be what schools would use).
    Now, I am aware that there are some homeschooling families who homeschool specifically to reduce the amt of interference that the government has in their children’s lives/education. However, to the best of my admittedly scant homeschooling experience/knowledge – I thought that many states already require homeschooling families to submit what plan they are using in order to be approved to homeschool. My idea would not be to try to run any homeschooling interference. I think that homeschooling is a perfectly reasonable choice that works fantastically for many families. All I was trying to say is that those families deserve (in my mind) the financial money to educate their children just like any other family. And the test requirement that I had in mind would be no more trying than the IOWA testing or something else like that (perhaps on the same kind of testing every few year schedule that most schools have – 3rd, 5th and 8th grade and then some highschool level testing). This idea had nothing to do with trying to make sure that homeschooling families were doing anything specific – just a way to make sure that all children were getting basic levels of literacy/math/science/etc skills. From the knowledge I have of the homeschooling families I know – most of their children would blow those tests out of the water. It would not be anything particularly arduous or interfering.
    Maybe this idea sounds like crap to everyone here reading it. Maybe most homeschooling families would turn down 10 – 15K per child per year that they were educating at home because they would be required to have the children take a standardized test 3 times before the highschool years. It is admittedly a pretty pie in the sky idea. I think it would be fabulous to let women have a real choice about whether they want to stay home with their children and not be financial penalized to the nth degree if they are not so privileged to have a partner that makes enough money, or have that kind of money on their own. That stay at home women would not be financially penalized through SS, and IRA contributions and the other myriad ways women who don’t work outside the home are penalized. That women who choose to work didn’t have to make a decision on where they children were watched based purely on the minimum they could afford. I think it is crazy that I stay home with my three kids and do a ton to make sure that they are socialized, ready to learn at their school and otherwise raise them to be healthy contributing members of society and that work is valued at zero (basically). But if I ran an at home day care provider business for three children (or become a nanny) – I could easily, in my area, be bringing home over $30K a year (pre-tax) and be earning money for SS, could be contributing to an IRA, etc. There is something very wrong when we penalize people for doing something that we pay someone else to do.

  34. “It is admittedly a pretty pie in the sky idea.”
    By some quick calculations (20m kids under 5 and approximately 60 million more under 18), the amount of money your are talking about runs up to something like 6% of the pre-recession GDP. Only old people and screwed-up banks can shift that kind of money.

  35. MH
    Gosh, I didn’t realize how cheap that idea would actually be! 6% of GDP seems like a bargain to give the financial resources necessary to educate all children in this country while at the same time helping women acheive their professional and personal goals as related to their careers and families. Perhaps its less pie in the sky than I believed. Thanks for taking the time to run those very preliminary numbers.

  36. Looks like in Britain with three kids I’d get about $80/wk. Definitely not as much as Sasha’s plan, but at least in Britain, it comes without strings as far I can tell.

  37. In Germany, Kindergeld is EUR 164 per month for the first and second child, EUR 170 for the third, and EUR 195 for each additional. It’s a bit like Social Security for the little ones. More here and here, both in German

  38. Those European payments sound quite a bit lower than what Sasha was talking about. A massive redistribution of income (which is what $10,000 per kid would be) and a frontal assault on public sector unions (which is what letting parents choose the schools would be) would pretty clearly make this a non-starter.

  39. “A massive redistribution of income (which is what $10,000 per kid would be) and a frontal assault on public sector unions (which is what letting parents choose the schools would be) would pretty clearly make this a non-starter.”
    I’m not particularly in favor of this plan — mostly because I’m ambivalent (well, generally opposed, but open to discussion) about government subsidizing families directly (though I’m happy to provide services primarily used by children). But, is it really a massive income re-distribution, if we presume that we dismantle spending on public education? If we spend 10K/student now, then sending that money directly to families doesn’t redistribute wealth any more than spending it on public schools does, does it?
    The opposition that would be faced if you tried to dismantle public education would be strong, but I’m not getting the income distribution argument (I guess there’s the birth ->K subsidy).
    Also not sure how we deal with special needs under such a scheme, since some children certainly cost more than 10K to the public system.

  40. Yes, the birth to K would be the big redistribution, but so would the $10k per school kid. I’m not certain if $10k per kid represents an increase or decrease from what is spent now, but that wasn’t my point. Spending per student is very equal across the country as a whole.

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