Why can’t people properly define the word “voucher”?
Earlier this month, I judged a speech and debate tournament in a high school near Dallas. In a round with thirteen students in it, only three were able to accurately identify what a school voucher was, the others defining them as charter schools, education savings accounts, and even property taxes. Many students argued that vouchers were intrinsically evil because they “steal” money from public schools, which are (of course) intrinsically good. Even I, someone who supports vouchers as much as any other school choice advocate, can acknowledge that there are numerous reasonably sound arguments against vouchers, but few if any were presented.
Obviously, nobody should expect high school kids to be public policy experts, but this ignorance comes from somewhere. They’re being fed massive amounts of misinformation from mainstream sources, and school choice advocates are just letting it happen. By freely allowing the opposition to harp on a term they aren’t even defining properly, we do real damage to the school choice movement.
Since the education establishment won’t define terms properly, I will: With a traditional school voucher program, “funds typically expended by a school district would be allocated to a participating family in the form of a voucher to pay partial or full tuition for their child’s private school, including both religious and non-religious options.” Thus, vouchers are tax dollars, already earmarked for education, paid out directly to tax-paying participants within the voucher program, for the purpose of educational use at a private school of their choice. Nothing more, nothing less.
“Vouchers” are not an accurate characterization of education savings accounts, which greatly broaden the areas in which public funds can be used to supplement a child’s education. In fact, Arizona’s Supreme Court ruled that the state’s education savings account program (which all students are now eligible for) was legal because it wasn’t a voucher. Nor do vouchers characterize charter schools, which are public schools free from the heavy hand of state edicts or woke school boards.
“Vouchers” do not represent open enrollment policies, which allow families to choose any public school district they desire, nor do they cover programs and resources that facilitate homeschooling.
And while innately ridiculous comments ought to be condemned — for example remarks like “vouchers are for vultures,” a comment recently tossed out by Texas Lieutenant Governor candidate Mike Collier — we should be just as angry about the misrepresentation of good policy. Elected officials are gaslighting concerned parents with rhetoric and misinformation that makes myriad forms of school choice seem like one, big boogeyman — at least the high schoolers mean well! It isn’t just politicians either: academics, activists, and even some school choice supporters misuse the word “voucher.”
For an example of the latter, back in May, Keri Ingraham, director of the American Center for Transforming Education, wrote a brilliant op-ed in the New York Post decrying the education establishment’s gaslighting of Americans. However, she never addresses the fact that the left is not only intentionally misrepresenting what a voucher does, but what a voucher is. More often than not, vouchers aren’t even on the proverbial table nowadays.
Some might accuse me of quibbling about word choice instead of dealing with “real” issues, but the words we use in this situation make a difference. Many Americans have an innate hostility to the word “voucher,” and this hostility is reflected in public opinion polling. More Americans are inclined to support school choice the second the word “voucher” is out of the picture. For example, as of August 2022, 62% of Americans and 71% of school parents supported vouchers, compared to 67% of Americans and 76% of school parents who supported educational savings accounts.
That 5% to 6% difference may seem small, but as school choice proposals face uphill battles or tumultuous futures in multiple states, every ounce of popular support matters. After all, no movement that claims to offer educational choice can do so if families have a poor or manipulated understanding of what their options are. And if a state that would not accept a voucher program establishes another form of school choice, that’s still an (incremental) win for educational freedom.
As important as the legislative and moral battles for school choice are, the linguistic battle matters too. As long as opponents of school choice have a monopoly on educational lingo, words will always remain an obstacle to genuine reform. For all that is holy, everyone — especially school choice supporters — needs to stop calling everything a voucher.