Food For Thought

Vouchers For Private Education: Bad Idea 

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

Parents have three options for providing their children with a formal education — public schools, private schools, and home schooling. Each path has advantages and disadvantages. 

Public education has always been free and accepts all students; but it can be over-regulated. Those choosing private education must pay tuition charges as well as taxes that support public schools; but they have more freedom of selection and curriculum. Home-schooled students have the maximum amount of freedom and are not faced with the general bureaucracy associated with public and private education. Certainly, detailed lists of real and perceived assets and liabilities could be compiled for each of these three paths.

Such lists often surface during debates over which educational path is superior. In most cases, it’s difficult to determine which of these methods provides the better education. Research on the subject is often biased and confusing. I liken it to responding to your wife’s question, “Which dress looks the best on me?” Choose any one and you lose. The proper answer is, “You’d look great in any dress.” In education, most children would “look great in” any of the three methods, if provided with a good educational environment. One fact all would agree upon is that educating children costs money. Therefore, most of the heated debate on education arises when funding is the main issue.

Every year we hear arguments supporting a voucher system for private education. This year there has been a significant amount of discussion about providing vouchers for poorer children in the District of Columbia. The idea is that children from less affluent homes will benefit more from private education than their richer counterparts. This unsupported hypothesis, as well as the theory that competition among educational agencies will provide a better educational environment, are constant themes of voucher supporters. 

Many would agree that public education is not sufficiently funded and that transferring funds from public education to private education does little to fix the big problem. I agree with this analysis. Giving a poor child the option and money to attend private school does little to change the fact that the child still lives in a poor home environment. Making small improvements in the overall community environment in which the child lives will do far more good than providing funds for a short vacation for a few students to a perceived “better world.” Educating the majority of poor children will always be the responsibility of the public school system. If we are truly concerned about these children, society should attempt to provide more support for public schools, rather than transfer dollars away to another system.

Voucher supporters state that giving the child a choice will improve education because it introduces competition into the equation. They assume that competition among educational agencies is always good. I think it’s just the opposite. It’s cooperation that provides real progress. Consumers of electric energy have had to live with the negative effects of unregulated competition in the electric utility industry. Over-emphasis of competition in some areas of society can do more harm than good. It can lead to outright corruption in industry, sports, education, and other fields of endeavor. If schools were forced to compete with each other, why would they want to cooperate? Educators have always openly shared the tools of education. Introduce unregulated competition and I will no longer share my playbook with the opposing team. In fact, I’ll try to recruit the better players from other teams in an effort to win.

Winning brings us to the next issue. How do we measure success with students who are given the opportunity to attend private schools? Will they be held to the same testing standards as their public-school counterparts? Will private schools be required to meet the same teacher certification standards as public schools? Speaking on this issue, Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a pro-voucher and school-choice group, said, “The very freedom that private schools have is what makes them more successful than their counterparts in the District (of Columbia).” She also stated, “It’s the bureaucracy, more paperwork, and once you give any education system license to control a private institution, they will take it and run.” Seems to me private schools want all the perks of public funding and none of the drawbacks. Why not remove all the bureaucracy for the public schools, including the over-reliance on testing programs (SOLs), and see what happens? My response to Jeanne Allen is, “What measures are you using to determine that private schools are more successful?”

In my immediate family I’ve had children or grandchildren in both public and private schools. Being an educator all my life, I’ve also done a lot of informal home schooling. I’ve seen the advantages and disadvantages of all systems. My three children and one daughter-in-law are all teachers. They have taught in both private and public schools. I have a grandson who attended private school last year and is now attending public school. His sister still attends a private school. Do I say one will receive a better education than the other because of the schools they are attending? Maybe a voucher system would have kept my grandson in private school, but I doubt that it will make a significant difference in his ability to meet future educational goals. It’s certainly a blessing that he had a good public school system to fall back on. I’m not worried, because my grandchildren have the most important element in a good education — a supportive family.

My support for children attending private schools is accomplished though my church. I choose to contribute, although my children have never attended a church-sponsored school. The American education system will always have private and public schools, but only one is charged with the education of all children. Public education is the foundation of a democratic government. The voucher system will do little to improve the quality of education for all children.

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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