School Vouchers

Since 1873, Maine has financed the education of thousands of kindergarten through 12th grade students in private schools. This type of system is known as a school voucher program.

In recent years, politicians have criticized the public education system, arguing that it has failed in some areas, particularly inner-cities. School performance is generally measured by student performance on standardized tests, typically administered by the state. One major problem facing the modern education system is how to fix schools that consistently "under perform" - have large numbers of students who score poorly on the test.

One solution advocated by Milton Friedman and advocated politically by the United States Republican Party is the use of school vouchers. Students in districts with under performing schools would be given money by the government to attend the school of their choice. Proponents argue that this would put the public schools in competition with private ones, and that competition would result in better choices for the public. In addition, a recent publication by the United States Department of Education has admitted that the average cost of public education per pupil is slightly more than double the cost per pupil of a private education, even though public schools have more students per teacher. Thus, there was no economy of scale as the per pupil cost should theoretically decline the more students there are per teacher.

Milton Friedman has argued that this is the result of public schools having no accountability to the market, and subsequently no accountability to parents or students. This lack of accountability, he believes, not only contributes to an inefficient use of resources and taxpayer dollars, but a poor education that does not fulfill the needs of students and parents. The vouchers would offer choice to parents and students if a public school did not provide them with the quality education they desired, as the voucher could be used at other public or private schools. Schools that lose students lose money, and schools that gain students gain money, thus providing a strong incentive to become efficient and accountable. Friedman does not deny that some schools will be hurt or close as a result, but he argues that it is necessary to eliminate the deadweight from the school system to bring efficiency and accountability back to education. Friedman and supporters of the voucher system believe that the market accountability will create positive results that can be emulated by even the worst public schools.

Opponents of the voucher system believe this will sap money from public schools, potentially destroying them. Another criticism is that private schools, unlike public schools, are not required to accept any student who comes through their doors. Furthermore, the use of tax-supported vouchers to support private schools amounts to a government subsidy for those schools. The state, unlike in the case of public schools, has far less control over the curriculum and operation, including employment policies of these private schools. Because of this, critics of the voucher scheme argue that it would violate both the principle of "no taxation without representation" as unlike a public school board, the trustees of private schools are not elected by the populace. In addition, some critics argue it would violate the separation of church and state (vouchers would help fund schools with religious curricula or that may hire and fire based on criteria such as remarriage after divorce.) Others note that is a broad reading of the constitution.