Opponents of school choice say giving families access to education vouchers is racist. Here’s why they’re wrong. » Publications » Washington Policy Center


Perhaps due to the dawning awareness they are losing, opponents of school choice are now claiming, in desperation, that the use of vouchers as a tool to provide education to children is racist.

Outside of education policy, the use of vouchers to provide public benefit is common and uncontroversial. Public Housing uses vouchers, Veterans Benefits uses vouchers, Federal College Aid uses vouchers, and Social Security uses arguably the best voucher of all – cash.

No one calls these tax-funded programs racist.

Yet this hurtful epithet is regularly addressed to families who support learning choice. Last week, KOMO Radio News reporter Carleen Johnson posed this question to State Superintendent Chris Reykdal:

“What about parents who seek school choice because they feel their child’s needs are not being met in the traditional public school in their area, and their needs are not being met over there, why isn’t it okay?”

Reykdal replied

“The truth is that the story of the vouchers is segregation. People are taking their money and going with it, so that instead of being in their community, in publicly funded schools and in school boards funded by the state, they take their money and go wherever they want. And as you can imagine, they go to their affinity groups, whether it’s white Christians coming together, African-American Christians Americans, Muslim families or anything else.

Answer: This answer is clearly insulting to parents and factually incorrect.

Society has changed a lot since the 1960s. As a political idea, school vouchers originated in the 1990s based on a seminal essay by economist Milton Friedman. He noted that, just like in other areas of the economy, expanding competition improves student outcomes as administrators seek to attract and retain families with high-quality services.

Today, nine out of ten empirical studies have shown that modern school vouchers lead to more ethnic and racial integration in schools, not less.

No study has found that parental choices lead to increased racial segregation. (See for example Part IV of “A Win-Win Solution, The Empirical Evidence for School Choice”, by Greg Forster, PhD, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, May 2016 at http://www.edchoice.org/wp- content/uploads/2016/05/A-Win-Win-Solution-The-Empirical-Evidence-on-School-Choice.pdf.)

The next Superintendent Reykdal goes on to say:

“Because we don’t own that [public school] the money ourselves. If you don’t like our state parks, you don’t get a voucher, so you can go to a private Disneyland. If you don’t like the way our US military behaves, you don’t get a defense voucher so you can buy your own home security system or your own private fire department. We have these basic public services that actually belong to the public where we participate in them, but we don’t pay them directly as customers, they’re paid for by the taxpayer, and so a voucher program basically says let’s destroy the public system and temporarily create a private property right, and I just think that’s a horrible idea based on what we saw after the civil war…”.

Answer: This sentiment is almost as misinformed as the previous one. Educating your child is not like a park, the army or a fire department. Every child is different and has different needs. Parents, not state superintendents or district administrators, know their own child best.

Trustees have no claim on public money or children. By giving families the opportunity to receive a portion of taxpayer dollars to fund educational services for children, as is the case in 32 states and the District of Columbia, the money serves a public purpose.

It is simply a way of fulfilling Washington State’s constitutional “primary duty” to “amply provide for the education of every child.”

Private school vouchers, tax credit scholarships and charter schools allow parents to choose the school that is best for their child. The current zip code-based public education system has kept too many low-income students and students of color out of quality schools.

School choice is a way to better serve families, make administrators more responsive, and improve schools. Traditional public schools often work very well, but when they don’t, families should be allowed to look for better alternatives.

It is not racist to want the best education for your child. But prepare to be called that if you want to start an open discussion about meaningful school reform. For those who aren’t intimidated by slurs, there are innovative learning options being tested in other states that may provide great options for children in our own state.

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