Impact on Access and Segregation: Are Vouchers a Panacea or Problematic? Pt. II

Written in collaboration with Dr. Jaime Portales

Guiding questions for today’s post on the universal implementation of vouchers:

  • Do they intensify segregation?
  • Do they create more access to high-quality education? If so, for whom?

According to various researchers, the introduction of universal vouchers in Chile has exacerbated segregation between schools and between types of schools (Carnoy, 1998; McEwan & Carnoy, 2000; Parry, 1996). At the family/household level, this increased segregation is often explained as a consequence of the nature of parental choice. Parents have responded to choice very differently depending on their social class and background, often magnifying and perpetuating the existing inequities (Parry, 1996). Chilean parents often state in surveys that school academic profiles serve as the basis for their choice of school; however, examination of the decision process reveals that most parents consider this criterion only after they have chosen a set of schools with similar student demographics (Elacqua, Schneider, & Buckley, 2006).

Parental choice is not the only factor responsible for school stratification. The features of the voucher policy itself also determine such stratification. Two policy measures in particular have contributed to an increase in between-school segregation: student selection procedures and the charging of additional fees to parents (Bellei, 2009; Gauri, 1998; Parry, 1996; Valenzuela, Bellei & De los Rios, 2006). These policy measures allow all private-voucher schools and secondary public schools to not only select the students that get enrolled in the school when the number of applicants is greater than the number of spaces available, but also to charge fees on a monthly basis.

Previous research (Carnoy, 1998; Parry, 1996) has found that the problem with the current selection procedures is that schools are being allowed to choose their students from a pool of applicants, trying to achieve higher outputs with the same level of inputs by selecting its best co-producers: middle-class or higher-ability students. In other words, when given the option, schools are less likely to enroll undernourished children, pupils with learning disabilities or students from poor or working class families (Bellei, 2009; Parry, 1996). As a result, student selection policies have added to the stratification of the educational system under vouchers (Does this critique of vouchers sound strangely similar to charter schools?).

In sum, these policy arrangements have resulted in a “creaming” effect wherein the skimming procedures (without the pumpkin pie) have enabled students who demonstrate greater abilities, or families that are able to pay, to be either accepted or eligible to enroll in private-voucher schools or popular public-municipal campuses located in wealthier, mixed income, or more centric areas (Portales, 2012). Meanwhile, students of low-ability or low socioeconomic status (SES) have remained in their public neighborhood schools located in low-income districts. The overall outcome has been an increased inequality of educational opportunities and an enlarged social stratification of students between schools, between types of schools, and between municipalities in a universal voucher system (Portales, 2012).

In conclusion, on the vouchers and segregation issue, I thought we as a society decided that issue at Brown v. Board. The research on the universal implementation of vouchers in Chile shows that while voucher proponents claim that they will increase access to high-quality education, instead, in practice on a large-scale they have magnified the inequalities (i.e. segregation and sorting mechanisms) that already exist in schools. Only certain students get access,thus,  as a universal panacea (solution) it fails on the equity concern. In a repeat of an issue eerily similar to my critique of charters, vouchers as a form of school choice has meant exactly that— schools choose.

For references, go here.


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