Vouchers and Low-Income: Reality Check

November 10, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Have school vouchers moved away from their historic focus on low-income students? The political hacks at the Center on Education Policy think so. And as we know, whenever CEP weighs in, that’s reason enough to check the facts.

Paul DiPerna of the Friedman Foundation did a headcount and found that as of now:

  • 11 of 17 existing voucher programs have no income limits
  • 7 of these are statewide special-needs programs (FL, GA, LA, OHx2, OK & UT), 3 have geographic caps (ME, VT & OH) and one has a numeric cap (CO)
  • Of the 6 programs with income limits, 5 have limits that are above 200% of the poverty line

What do you know? CEP is right!

Of course, other kinds of limitations can be equally problematic. If our goal is to create a thriving marketplace of innovative options, the key is to provide enough students with enough choice to support new entrants – educational entrepreneurs – so we get beyond just moving kids from existing public schools to existing private schools. We don’t really have any existing programs that do that.

On the other hand, even among poorly designed programs there are better and worse forms. The income limitation was worse for educational entrepreneurship than, say, a straight numeric cap or a straight geographic limitaiton. As Milton always said, show me a program for the poor and I’ll show you a poor program. The hard reality is that lower-income people are not the population that throws its support behind truly innovative ventures. They have too much at risk. It’s the well-off, educated parents who are most likely to feel secure trying newer or more specialized schools. (Programs like EdChoice that are not “straight” geographic limitations but shift eligibility areas from year to year based on public school performance are another matter – they’re hugely problematic from this standpoint.)

The quickest way to unlock educational innovation and deliver better education to low-income students is to give vouchers to everyone. That way the innovations will, you know, actually happen.

Since I know you’re wondering, here are the tax-credit scholarship numbers for comparison purposes:

  • 3 of 10 tax-credit scholarship programs have no income limits
  • One of the three (AZ) is a statewide special-needs program
  • 6 of the 7 programs with limits have limits that are above 200% of the poverty line

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