A Voucher Is A Coupon & “School Choice” Is A Lie

Examining resource allocation from one side of the tracks to the other.

Paul Smith
9 min readOct 26, 2017


This charter school gets slightly better test scores than its traditional counterpart. #winning

Education shouldn’t be political. Relative to other areas of our national budget, it’s not that expensive; about 15% of our state budget, and only about 6% of our national budget. But, it’s always been near the top of the list of issues that voters care most about because most everyone understands that how well our children do in school affects nearly every other aspect of the state of our union: Crime, economy, employment rate, national defense, health, etc.

Last spring, two northern California schools relatively close to each other saw shockingly disparate results on the state test. Only 61% of eleventh-graders at Foresthill High School tested at, or above standard for English Language Arts (ELA). Worse yet, only 29% were at or above standard in Math. Compare that to Rocklin High where students scored 84% in ELA and 64% in Math. (See test results here.)

A little farther south at Argonaut High in Jackson, 71% were at or above standard in ELA, but only 19% for Math. Compare this to Oak Ridge High in El Dorado Hills with 90% for ELA, and 71% for Math.

NOTE — Bay Area schools added at the top of the list for perspective.

What’s going on here? Are students in Rocklin and El Dorado Hills naturally gifted or is there something in the water? Of course not. It’s all about socioeconomic status. Educational attainment is HIGHLY correlated to the socioeconomic status of a student’s parents:

See where your district ranks HERE>

The trend here is clear and should come as no surprise to anyone. There’s a reason why homes within the boundary of a high-performing school cost so much. So what’s the solution? If you believe Betsy DeVos, the GOP, and others within the “school reform” movement, vouchers and “school choice” are the answer. But are they, really?

Let’s take a look at vouchers. A voucher is a set amount of money provided by the state that a family can use to help fund tuition at a private school. There are few private schools in the rural parts of our state that would rival the educational attainment of students from Oak Ridge or Rocklin, so let’s travel to the Bay Area to look at a possible scenario.

At Redwood High School in Redwood City, only 4% of students met standard for ELA, and NO students met standard for Math. Let’s suppose the state gave parents of this school a voucher equal to the amount of per-pupil spending in the state: $11,145. (Note, this is very unlikely. In other states where vouchers are in place, the amount of a voucher is significantly less than per-pupil spending. For example, in Indiana the state spends $9,548 per student, but the maximum voucher is only $6,280.81.) Theoretically, a family could use this voucher to send their daughter to Castilleja, a prestigious all-girls private school located a short drive from Redwood High. Tuition and fees at Castilleja are $45,580. That leaves the family with a balance of $34,435.

If the family was open to a Catholic school, they could try to get their daughter admitted to the more affordable Junipero Serra High School nearby. There, tuition and fees total $21,425 leaving the family with a balance of $10,280.

Are you getting the picture? Of course, these private schools will have a limited number of seats available to voucher students and even then, there is no guarantee of admission. Private schools can turn away students for any or no good reason. What we’d end up with is a lot of families holding voucher coupons with no place to spend them. Meanwhile, the bulk of the money allocated to vouchers would go to families who already have their children enrolled in a private school.

Merry Christmas.

Eventually, a gold-rush of sorts would break out with private schools galore popping up, each promising a “world-class education,” but without any transparency on student performance (private schools don’t participate in annual state testing) we’d never really know how well a school is performing. (12/7/17 EDIT — This Huffpo report on curriculum with private, evangelical schools is a must read!) These private schools will not be required to provide services to students with special needs, and what we’d end up with at the traditional public schools is a high concentration of special needs students crammed into crowded and deteriorating classrooms. At that point, attacks on public education will escalate as conservatives point to the multitude of “failed schools” as evidence. (See: “Self-fulfilling prophecy”)

If you agree, you might be a liberal!

The above statement may sound like an argument for School Choice and vouchers, but it’s not. Study after study show that educational outcomes for students from charter schools are no better than traditional schools, and in many cases, far worse. Yes, there are success stories, but these are edge cases and usually explained by exclusionary admittance practices and expulsion of underperforming students. Even if a charter school performs slightly better than its traditional counterpart, the school is still performing far below traditional schools in more affluent neighborhoods.

So, what’s the solution?

A Solution For Vouchers

Vouchers could theoretically work for a small handful of students IF:

  • The voucher covered 100% of tuition.
  • The school held a blind lottery with no hoops to jump through. Names would go into a hat without any qualifying criteria or discrimination, and whichever students were chosen would be admitted.
  • The school would adhere to the same state regulations as public schools for expulsion.
  • Voucher students participated in annual state testing so we could measure our return on investment.
  • The school provided door-to-door transportation for any voucher student that needed it. (Not a bus pass!)
  • All teachers were fully credentialed.
  • Schools adhere to the ADA and provide requisite services for students with special needs.

A Solution For School Choice

School choice should mean REAL choice, not a false choice between a school with low test scores and more programs, and a charter with marginally better test scores but fewer programs. Choice should mean that a parent could send a child to whichever school they wish.

So, erase all the boundaries. All public schools everywhere would have a blind lottery for all incoming students with no preference given to students with siblings or home address. Naturally, schools would be required to provide free, school-owned and operated transportation services to any student who lives more than a couple miles away from campus.

Can you imagine? And of course, this would do nothing to help students in our underperforming rural schools where no options exist within a reasonable drive time.

There is another way. There is a solution so obvious and simple that would solve the inequity in education once and for all: NEEDS-BASED FUNDING.

Consider the chart below. In this chart I attempt to illustrate a fundamental truism. It’s not about money… It’s about what money brings. Kids who have access to more and better resources end up doing better in school:

So, what do I mean by resources?

Facilities/equipment: The condition of the buildings, school grounds, HVAC, windows, etc. Is there a performing arts center and/or vocational ed. workshops? How about athletic equipment, desks, chairs, lab equipment, white boards, hand sanitizer, masks, janitorial equipment, supplies…?

Technology: Broadband, broadband at home, wireless networks, 1:1 laptops and/or tablets, projectors, audio amplification systems, smartboards, administrative software, specialized software (CAD, Photoshop, etc.), servers, firewalls, PA systems, school-to-home messaging systems, etc.

Curriculum: Textbooks, workbooks, worksheets, presentation slides, educational software,

Programs: AP courses, before and after school enrichment, robotics, computer programming, clubs, athletics, career and technical education, etc.

Transportation: Travel time, safe routes for walking/biking school busses, ride sharing. Field trips!

Teacher Experience: In virtually every profession, the more experience one has, the more skilled they become in their job. Teaching is no different. Experience matters, and teachers who have more of it tend to be more effective.

Professional Development: Training on new software, school procedures, classroom instruction, etc. Teachers are hungry for knowledge and the more support they have for strengthening their craft, the better the outcomes for students.

Health: School nurses. Mental health therapists. Nutrition services. Extended before and after care with snacks, places to sleep, tutors, personal trainers, etc.

Under the current system, when a school or district needs money, they ask the school community for funding through a school bond or a fundraiser. In affluent areas, these tend to get passed and funded without hesitation.

This $63,000,000 stadium in Texas was part of a $220,000,000 school bond. #priorities

Meanwhile in rural Mariposa, CA, the community just passed a $24 million school bond; their first facilities school bond EVER.

More recently, teachers in Calaveras, CA went on strike after not receiving a pay raise for two years. An independent fact-finder was brought in to assess the situation and ultimately recommended a 6.5% pay increase among other recommendations. The district, worried about a lack of rainy-day funds rejected the recommendations, fearing another recession would trigger a repeat of the teacher layoffs experienced after the last financial crisis.

PERSPECTIVE: In May of 2016, the Palo Alto Unified school board approved a 12% teacher salary increase after a single vote.

As long as local schools continue to be funded by local taxes, gross inequities in education will remain.

The solution is simple. Establish a minimum standard for school resources across the state and fund schools accordingly. All schools would receive funding based on need. Eliminate local property taxes for the purpose of school funding and instead pay the requisite taxes through state income tax.

No more local school bonds. One pool of money for the entire state.

For schools like Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, this could mean less funding than they’re accustomed to, but let’s face it, with 21 AP courses, advanced robotics and CIS programs, 100+ clubs and activities, 25 sports teams, a world-class performing arts center, and a stunningly beautiful campus, the school is in pretty good shape. We could categorize this school as a “Maintenance Funding” school.

Who wouldn’t enjoy having their own choice of locally-grown, organic produce served daily?

Other schools in poorer areas will likely need a large cash infusion to catch up. Beyond all the capital costs for facilities repair and replacement, funding for before and after school sports and enrichment programs could help alleviate pressures many single-parent families feel who are working multiple jobs and don’t have the time or money to provide extracurricular activities. The school may also require health services, and a program to get families on high-speed Internet.

This may sound radical and extravagant, but if we agree on the premise that the quality of a child’s education shouldn’t be determined by where the parents live, nor by how wealthy (or poor) they may be, then the solution for education quickly snaps into view.

Vouchers are coupons and “School Choice” is a lie. Fundamentally, both charters and vouchers are treating symptoms with a “solution” that makes the problem worse. It’s like drinking whiskey to cure a hangover. If we’re serious about providing high-quality education for ALL of our students, then we must get serious about what students at each school need, and funding individual schools accordingly.



Paul Smith

I write about EdTech and education, but mostly this is where I rant about politics. On Twitter @prsmith2009