May 26, 2013
An Alternative School Voucher System
by Russell L. Ackoff
The continuing debate about school vouchers assumes incorrectly that there is only one voucher system. It is a theme that has many variations. The one presented here takes care of most of the objections, if not all, that have been leveled against that theme.
Much of social progress derives from a struggle for survival. This is as true for organizations and institutions as it is for biological species. Public schools have not had to be concerned with survival; their survival is independent of their performance because they are subsidized and are supplied with customers, most of whom have no choice of supplier. They do not have to compete to survive, and they do not have to satisfy their customers. To survive, all they need do is satisfy their subsidizers (governments and boards of education) and comply with regulations. As a result, most of the students they serve and their parents are trapped; they have no choice.
Christopher Jenks, a Harvard education scholar, designed a system to overcome these shortcomings: the voucher system. Variations of this system are being used successfully in several communities. What follows is my own variation of Jenks’s theme, a variation that takes into account the major critiques of Jenks’s original design.*
The parents or guardians of each school-age child would be given an educational voucher worth the current average cost per student in public schools, payable by the government to the school that receives it. This voucher would cover tuition. An additional voucher would be provided to cover transportation, if the student attends a school outside the area in which he or she lives. Transportation costs would be paid for by the school with responsibility for the area in which the student lives. This would provide an added incentive for schools to satisfy the students and their parents who live in the area assigned to them. The voucher could also be used to cover all or part of the tuition to nonreligious private schools. (This would force competition between public schools and between public and private schools. Like competition in general, it would lead to better service to the system’s consumers.)
Public schools would be autonomous with regard to hiring and compensation of teachers and administrative personnel. This means they would have to compete for personnel as well as for students and, therefore, would have to be as concerned with the quality of work life they provide to their employees as they would be with the quality of education they provide to their students.
Parents could apply to any nonreligious school for admission of their children. They would not have to use the one in the area in which they live. However, schools would have to accept applicants who reside in the areas assigned to them. Admission of applicants who reside in other areas would have to be made at random. This would assure equal access to all applicants to any school out of their areas. It would also make desegregation of schools possible, because race, religion, national origin, sex, or ability could not be used as an admission requirement. (The need for busing would be completely eliminated.)
Public schools would have no source of income other than what they obtained by cashing in the vouchers they receive. Therefore, if they did not attract and retain applicants, they would go out of business. Those who were employed by a school would not have tenure that extended beyond the life of the school. Public schools, like private schools, should have the ability to get rid of ineffective employees, and the system should have the ability to get rid of ineffective schools.
Private schools could charge whatever they want for tuition, but parents would have to pay whatever they charge above the value of the voucher. However, private schools would be eligible for receipt of funds from vouchers only if they too selected from among their applicants at random.
This voucher system would encourage differences between schools and specialization. For example, special schools or programs for retarded or deaf children would develop, especially since vouchers for such children would be worth more than those issued for unimpaired children.
By introducing the market mechanism into the educational system, its customers and consumers would be encouraged to become familiar with the alternative schools available. Each community should provide information that enables school users to make intelligent choices. In the system described here, individual schools would clearly be more responsive to residents of the areas assigned to them, more adaptive to changing needs, and more open to participation by their stakeholders.
Public education should be extended through undergraduate college and university levels. However, vouchers would not be issued for colleges and universities in the same way. Anyone receiving a certified admission and registration statement from an institution of higher learning would be able to submit it to an appropriate government agency and receive a voucher that would defray all or part of the tuition required by the school that had admitted the student. But this would be in the form of a loan that would have to be paid back after graduation. Failure to do so would be treated as a misdemeanor.
The voucher system is frequently accused of putting private schools under no obligation to accept or keep students that fall below their academic standards or become disciplinary problems. Clearly, the system described here is not subject to such criticism because private schools that accept vouchers would have to select among applicants at random.
This system would move much of the control of public and private education into the hands of the parents of students. They cannot possibly do worse than the so-called experts have done, and there is a good chance that they will do much better.
Click here to access TECHNOS Quarterly's interview with Russell Ackoff.