What will a voucher buy?

I have often wondered what an educational voucher will buy. How large need vouchers be to give students access to decent education? A recent Cato study, by David Salisbury, attempts to answer this question.

Here is part of the Executive Summary:

“Government figures indicate that the average private elementary school tuition in the United States is less than $3,500 and the average private secondary school tuition is $6,052. Therefore, a voucher amount of $5,000 would give students access to most private schools. Since average per pupil spending for public schools is now $8,830, most states could offer a voucher amount even greater than $5,000 and still realize substantial savings. A survey of private schools in New Orleans; Houston; Denver; Charleston, S.C.; Washington, D.C.; and Philadelphia shows that there are many options available to families with $5,000 to spend on a child’s education. Even more options would be available if all parents were armed with a voucher or tax credit of that amount.”

Salisbury admits that the cost figures do not include all capital outlays or pension liabilities. On the other hand, vouchers could introduce more competition, lowering costs.

I worry about how vouchers themselves will affect prices and costs. Private schools for poor urban students are cheap, in part, because the school knows the parents cannot afford much more. If the first $5000 is free, the price could go up considerably. In addition, if the schools can somehow coordinate on yet higher prices, there will be political pressures to raise the voucher amount.

Mixed public-private systems are not always cheaper than more public systems, in part because private firms are often skilled in extracting resources from the public sector. The American health care system, for instance, has considerably higher administrative costs than does the “single-payer” Canadian system, read here for a recent comparison. I don’t favor national health insurance by any means, but these figures should give pause to voucher advocates.

The research of Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby suggests that increased school competition brings increased school quality. But her work does not clear up the most difficult questions about vouchers. If you imagine the system in place, on a large scale, for lengthy periods of time, and subject to pressures for rent-seeking and regulation, what would it look like? Would it truly serve parent demands for good education, or would it look more like the American system of health care, a crazy-quilt mix of bad incentives, high costs, and increasing levels of intervention?


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