The problem I have with voucher programs is that they just result in different students winning what remains a zero-sum game. If you have one good school, six OK schools, and three crappy schools before vouchers, what will you have after vouchers? If you’re lucky, you’ll still have one good school overwhelmed with applications, six OK schools, and three crappy schools that still end up as the dumping ground for 30% of the students. More likely, by weakening the incentive for people to support their local schools, you’ll find that you have no good schools at all, and more crappy ones than before. Increasing student mobility doesn’t solve anything. Yeah, sure, maybe student X gets to escape his crappy local school and go to a better one, but only by displacing student Y. Sooner or later some other poor kid is going to be sitting in that same seat in that same crappy school.

But wait, you say, it’s not a closed system! If we make the vouchers large enough, that will create an incentive for entrepreneurs to create more and better private schools, right? Uh huh, let’s think that one through. Either students will flock to these new schools, or they won’t. If they don’t, we haven’t changed anything at all. If they do, then because the total number of students is constant that means the public schools will become relatively depopulated and some will close. If we allow the private schools to be selective in any way, the remaining public schools will become even worse dumping grounds for underperforming or otherwise undesirable students than they already are. If we allow the private schools to charge tuition over and above the voucher amount, the migration will start at the top and work downward; maybe more middle-class kids will go to private schools than did before but the poor kids will be just as screwed as ever and the most noticeable difference would be that the government would be subsidizing rich kids attending rich-kid schools.

The only way to avoid these problems is to make it so that (at least some) private schools are made to accept vouchers without selection and not charge extra tuition – charter schools, in other words. Now we have a bunch of students going to private schools. This student body will have the same statistical makeup as before, and be funded by the government at the same levels everywhere. Can somebody explain what makes this better than leaving them in the public schools they were in before and creating more equitable conditions there? Is there some magic that’s supposed to occur just because the schools are now run by corporate entities whose goal is profit rather than public service? Do vouchers provide any benefit in this scenario compared to more equitable state or federal funding instead of property taxes? No, of course they don’t. Somebody’s still paying for that rich-kid subsidy.

Vouchers are a classic example of an appeal to illogic and selective perception. Voucher proponents love to paint a picture of poor disadvantaged children who can go to better schools because of vouchers. That’s a good thing, right? And if vouchers lead to a good outcome then more vouchers will lead to more good outcomes, right? WRONG. What works for a sample often doesn’t work when applied to the entire population. It’s good that we have soldiers to defend our country, but what kind of country would it be if it consisted only of soldiers? Some people buy into the voucher myth because they don’t understand statistics, some buy into it because they realize it doesn’t work for everyone but are willing to gamble that they’ll be among the lucky few, but anyone who really thinks through the implications cannot help but realize that vouchers are a dead end or stopgap at best. The real problems would still be waiting for solutions even if we had vouchers.