It is well known that the idea of vouchers was launched in response to the Brown decision of 1954. Southern states wanted to avoid desegregating their schools, so they created voucher laws so that white students would not be forced to go to school with Black students. (A useful history is Steve Suitts’ Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement.) Some “credit” libertarian Milton Friedman as the godfather of the voucher movement, but his 1955 essay advocating vouchers would have disappeared into the mists of time without the legislation passed across the South.

The voucher idea was stigmatized for many years because of its association with segregation. But it was revived in 1990 by a scholarly book by John Chubb and Terry Moe called Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, in which they theorized that vouchers were actually a panacea. (Their word.)

We now know they were wrong. As multiple studies have reported, student academic performance is worse in voucher schools than in public schools. we also know that most vouchers are used by students who were already enrolled in private and religious schools, so vouchers are an expensive subsidy for families that like the subsidy but don’t need it.

So, why is there continued advocacy for vouchers? why do voucher advocates say that “all families should have the same choice as the rich” when the value of vouchers don’t pay for elite schools attended by the rich? Why are they sold as salvation for children when they are not?

Peter Greene sees a nefarious goal behind the voucher movement. He originally wrote this post two years ago, but recently reposted it because it was prescient.

The purpose of vouchers is to abandon public schools. As choice prevails, the community sees no reason to tax itself for private choices. Bond issues will lose. Parents whose children are no longer in school will not pay taxes for other people’s children. People without children will think, “that’s not my responsibility.” People will not want to pay for religious schools for those of a different faith. Schooling will become a personal responsibility, not a civic responsibility.

Peter writes:

We need to find another way to talk about vouchers.

As the GOP mounts a multi-state initiative to implement vouchers or super-voucher education savings accounts in many states across the country, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’ve been looking at the voucher movement through the wrong lens (which is to day, the lens that voucheristas have promoted).

Vouchers are not about freeing or empowering parents. They are about empowering private interests to chomp away at the giant mountain of education money in this country. They are about dismantling any sort of oversight and accountability; it’s striking how many of these voucher bills/laws very specifically forbid the state to interfere with the vendors in any way, shape or form.

Think of voucher programs this way.

The state announces, “We are dismantling the public education system. You are on your own. You will have to shop for your child’s education, piece by piece, in a marketplace bound by very little oversight and very few guardrails. In this new education ecosystem, you will have to pay your own way. To take some of the sting out of this, we’ll give you a small pocketful of money to help defray expenses. Good luck.”

It’s not a voucher system. It’s a pay your own way system. It’s a you’re on your own system. The voucher is not the point of the system; it’s simply a small payment to keep you from noticing that you’ve just been cut loose.

Freedom and empowerment will come, as always, in direct proportion to the amount of money you have to spend.

The voucher amount will dwindle. That amount is based on what the public school system spends to educate a child, and taxpayers will shrink that amount going forward as the schools themselves shrink to holding facilities for students who can’t find a private vendor to accept them, or whose parents can’t afford what the voucher won’t cover. And remember, we’ve seen this movie before– after Brown v. Board of Education, white families in some states moved their children into private segregation academies, and then they cut public school taxes (because why keep paying taxes on the system that your child no longer used).

Vouchers are the tail, not the dog. They are the public-facing image of privatization– and not just privatization of the “delivery” of education. Voucherization is also about privatizing the responsibility for educating children, about telling parents that education is their problem, not the community’s.

We need another term for discussing this family of policies; “voucher” doesn’t begin to capture what’s truly at stake. I can imagine a world in which charter schools are a viable, even useful part of a robust pubic education system; it’s not at all the world we currently live in, but I can imagine it. But the system that voucher proponents want is absolutely incompatible with a functioning public education system. And it has nothing to do with freedom.