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What is an education voucher?


January 14, 2020 Lisa Everitt, ATA Staff Officer

Education vouchers have been in the news lately because, at the UCP Annual General Meeting in December, the party voted by a slim margin to adopt a policy supporting the use of vouchers in Alberta. The specific language of the resolution calls for the government to “implement a ‘voucher system’ that will provide equal per-student funding regardless of their school choice, free from caveats or conditions.” The UCP’s adoption of vouchers as a part of its policy position raises the question, what is a voucher?

Vouchers in their pure form provide families with a set amount of money for their school-aged children to go to school — as many would say, “the funding follows the student.” For example, if such a system was implemented in Alberta, every parent or guardian would be given a voucher worth the equivalent of the per student funding block (approximately $8,000 to $10,000 per student, depending on which grants are included). The parent would then choose how they want their child to be educated without any restraints, and they would “cash in” that voucher with whichever school they want to send their child to. They could send their child to a public school, a charter school, a private school (accredited or unaccredited), or home school their child. 

In some ways, Alberta already has a modified voucher system. Many funds provided to schools from the provincial government are “capitated” grants, distributed based on the actual enrolment of the school jurisdiction. For most operational grants, students are funded equally whether they attend a public, separate, francophone or charter school. If a student attends an accredited private school, then the school receives 60 to 70 per cent of the base operational funding. There are also a few fully independent, unaccredited private schools that receive no funding at all because they choose not to hire certificated teachers or to follow provincial curriculum. And currently, students that are home schooled must register with a school jurisdiction or a private school that receives a small amount of funding to support the student and the home schooling parent.

A full voucher system would bring equal per-student funding to every school and to all home schoolers, regardless of the type of school being used, including private schools that choose not to use certificated teachers or to follow provincial curriculum. It’s a seductive idea, but in practice, vouchers have been very destructive to societies that choose to implement them.

In the 1950s, American economist Milton Friedman wrote about the advantages of implementing a voucher system. Friedman’s belief was that the free market could do a better job of offering schooling than the public system, and he advocated that vouchers be implemented to encourage the growth of the private school industry. This antiquated, 1950s thinking has been implemented without success in some countries and some cities across the world. 

In fact, the implementation of voucher systems has caused very damaging effects on students, families and communities. For example, under dictator Augusto Pinochet, Chile implemented a national voucher system and today, 30 years later, Chilean people are experiencing the harmful results of that ideological experiment. Research published by the National Education Policy Center in Boulder, Colorado shows that, in Chile, 30 years of school choice through vouchers and privatization has had detrimental effects.

“Chile has developed a finely stratified and segregated education system that has deepened social fractures based on social class ethnicity, religion and immigration, and that has neutralized integrative mechanisms of citizenship and public trust imbued in public education,” states a paper co-authored by researcher Ernesto Trevino.

And because private schools can impose tuition in addition to the vouchers, the poorest families are left in an under-resourced public school system. The class division encouraged and fostered by the voucher system as well as other privatization measures in Chile has contributed to deep social rifts, culminating in massive protests and, at times, violence in the streets. 

Voucher systems are generally promoted to encourage so-called “school choice.” In fact, they are really just used to advance private school interests. They are intended to provide additional public funds to private schools in order to incentivize greater enrolment and thus drive even more funds to the private system — thereby, in theory, enabling further school choice. 

Interestingly, a 2016 study by school choice advocates at found that enrolment in schools of choice did not differ significantly in jurisdictions that introduced voucher funding. The net result, it seems, is that those private schools simply receive a greater share of public funding without attracting more students. 

In Alberta, it makes little sense to introduce a voucher system. Alberta’s public education system is recognized as an international leader in student learning, and it should be protected from those who wish to privatize education. Privatization benefits those who are already privileged; vibrant public education helps all citizens and families. ❚ 

Opinions expressed on this page represent the views of the individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

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