The Voucher State


I’ve commented before that I don’t think enough voucher proponents have thought hard enough (or a least blogged about) what it would take to build an equitable, free(ish) market for public education.

As it happens, either have I.

So here’s a first attempt.

I’m not sure if it would work or not.


The state education regulatory body would set a per-pupil funding amount for each child. Additional weights would be set for student characteristics, with at-risk students receiving more funds.

This money would then be sent to families in a form of an educational voucher.


School could charge any amount up to the full voucher amount. They could charge non-voucher students more than the voucher amount.


Any entity that functions as an educational provider would submit enrollment targets to the state by December 1st.

Enrollment targets would be required to be uniform across grades; i.e., you couldn’t offer hundred kindergarten slots but only fifty fourth grades slots. This would prevent schools from using selective attrition to weed out tough to serve kids. Moreover, it would force each school to equally share the burden of midyear enrollees.

Enrollment season would be from February to April, and any child could apply to any school in the state. Schools would have to educate any child that was assigned to their school via the enrollment system.

Schools could apply to the state to allow for selective admission criteria (academics, arts, etc.), and it would be up to the state to determine the appropriate number of selective schools (I wouldn’t want it over ~10% or so).

At the end of the enrollment period, if there were not enough seats for all students, schools would be required to take additional students on a proportional basis.


Expulsion would be handled by the courts. If a school wished to deprive a child of a public education, the school would have to make this case in court. States could pass laws outlining what offenses are expulsion worthy.


Schools would be required to provide free transportation to any student within a four-mile radius.

Information and Accountability

The state would create a list of allowable tests. These tests would be culled from widely used standards based and national normed assessments. Schools could utilize any of these tests and would give their selected test on an annual basis to all voucher students.

The state would publish the results of tests, and, as much as possible, compare an individual school’s growth results with other schools that serve similar populations.

Because schools would use different tests, there would be no unified letter grade system.

In extreme cases, the state could label a school failing and put a warning next to it on the unified enrollment form, but schools would only be closed for illegal behavior, not poor performance.


All public facilities would be transferred to a public trust. This trust would then sell or lease properties to educational providers. The trust would be given a mandate to sell all of its assets to the private sector over a predetermined time period.

Non-School House Education Options

Tutoring, mentoring, specialized courses, etc. could all be purchased with a portion of a family’s voucher.

These entities would be subject to aforementioned enrollment and accountability provisions.

The state would work with each provider to determine an appropriate assessment plan. The results of these assessments would be made public.


There would be no authorization plan outside of the school operator and the state agreeing on an assessment plan for the provider.

For the most part, if you wanted to open a school, and parents were willing to send their child there, you could do so.

In Sum

Government authorization and accountability would, for the most part, go away.

Government’s primary function would be to monitor equity issues (enrollment, expulsion, etc.).

Everything else would be left to families and schools.


What do you think would happen if a state adopted this model?

I’ll try to answer this question in subsequent posts.

Also, I might revise some of the above. I haven’t thought very deeply about some of these issues, and I’m sure I’ve gotten a lot wrong.

9 thoughts on “The Voucher State

  1. matthewladner


    Good start.

    The enrollment and expulsion provisions seem a bit overdone in my view. Expelling a child from a school is not the same as denying them a public education. I’m also very concerned about the quickness of many reformers to accept the district expulsion rates as the “correct” rates. You see this in the Washington D.C. case all the time, but when you examine campus crime reports and expulsion rate data it raises the question of how the needs of the diligent student should be balanced against those of the serial violator of rules and laws. There is far more reason to suspect that the charter schools in DC have struck a better balance on this front than the district. There is a straight path from making it difficult to impossible to expel students that leads to damaged school culture and then to mere student warehousing. Public school teachers complain bitterly about this btw, but I have yet to see their associations file legislation to do anything about it.

    On the grade level spots issue, we would not want the lowest number of seats available in any grade to deny opportunity for kids in other grades. If a school can offer 100 kindergarten seats but only 10 5th grade seats, it would not make any sense for them to offer only 10 kindergarten seats- this would deny spots to 90 kindergarten kids. Concerns about selective attrition should be met head on by varying funding weights. Should we consider for instance a weight for low income child? Do special needs funding weights make sense? Certainly an interesting conversation.

    Finally in the non-school uses it is very important to include a portion for future higher education savings. This keeps everyone in the system on their toes in terms of providing the highest possible bang for the buck by making the opportunity cost of sub-optimal spending explicit to the user. The broader the non-school uses (community colleges, university courses, etc.) the easier it is for parents to hold all providers accountable. As one of our AZ ESA parents once said “With a voucher I could hold public schools accountable, but with an ESA I can hold public and private schools accountable.”

    1. nkingsl

      Hey Matt – great point on higher education savings. Fully agree.

      I guess I’d urge you to put forward an enrollment and expulsion solution that ensures every student gets served. In this system, there are no public schools. So if every school says we don’t backfill, what happens if a kid moves in midyear?

      1. matthewladner


        My understanding is that even now if a child is expelled from a district school, they have forfeited their right to attend that particular school. They have not however forfeited their opportunity to attend another school, and we are big on second chances and redemption. I don’t see a reason to assume that every school is going to say that they don’t backfill. The public schools here in AZ fund districts on last year’s count, and when you talk to charter folks they talk about the “count day purge” when districts run off kids after they have secured their funding for next year. Current year quarterly or better funding systems however would put a stop to that, and the charters here report that they take these kids in.

        Moreover as we broaden our definition of schooling options expand. Parents can hire private tutors, enroll their kids in community college etc. This is not the ideal method for every kid, but it does expand the menu. You could also think about putting an additional funding weight on expelled kids to create an additional incentive for schools to take on second chance kids.

        Would any of this absolutely guarantee a spot for an expelled child at a custodial school? No, it would not. It is not like we have that now however- especially given that current expulsions often come from the district rather than just the school. It is easy to imagine for instance district schools funded on last year’s count not expressing much interest in taking an out of district transfer who got themselves expelled. I have no doubt this has something to do with our dropout rates. There are ways to minimize this in the public schooling system (current year funding on a monthly basis sounds like a good start) but it would be unrealistic to think we are going to stamp it out entirely.

        A sadly common high school culture in this country involves an unspoken bargain between students and staff whereby the staff surrenders on getting the kids to learn, and the students actively stigmatize academic achievement while ignoring the staff. The staff moves into a despairing career of warehousing children. We should not order schools to make bricks without straw- they need to be able to shape the culture of a school in order to keep a focus on academic achievement. A tool of last resort in that task is expulsion and we should be incredibly cautious in denying or curtailing its availability to educators.

  2. badgehs

    Neerav, I came to tout Matthew’s work,…and he beat me to it.

    Last week he gave us an outstanding presentation on Educational Savings Accounts (Or educational scholarship accounts as they may be called for tax or legal reasons). An ESA might be used for any of a number of purposes, be they services, materials, equipment, or even, as suggested, put into a qualified 529 college savings plan.

    The video of the event is here: Readers can follow the Twitter stream at #ESAFuture.

    For our purposes here at BadgeOhio|OhioCreditFlexibility, it also provides a tempting future funding opportunity to pay mentors, district teachers, digital course providers, community institutions, and many others for helping teens get far more personalized learning through #connecteLearning and other non-classroom, but credit-earning, coursework.

    And connect parents and students more directly to the sources of innovation.


  3. Pam Kingsley

    Not crazy that your proposal is money-follows-student to ANY school, public or private. I see private school as an option, but only when an academically high-performing public school is not available. AND, a “private” school had better be able to demonstrate its ability to educate students or we’ll end up with a bevy of voucher-fed private schools with an emphasis on skiing or sailing, rather than academics.

    Funding –YES…and, the formula must include transportation costs (also based on a formula, see below)
    Pricing –So, John D.Rockefeller IX takes his voucher to High School for Investment Bankers and then pays the difference? How does Socio-economically Deprived, Jr. pay the difference? Or, in the case of a religious school, would positions for say, Muslims, be filled first and the remainder made available for students of a different faith or no faith? Muddy waters. Suggest the first goal be securing ed vouchers for any public school and then start arguments for any/all schools at a later time – if ever.
    Enrollment –
    Expect strong push-back from (mostly) charters which currently rely on selective attrition to control academic outcomes, rather than the harder-to-implement whole-child models.
    Midyear enrollees? Suspect that only the worse schools will have vacancies as slots in best schools will likely be filled. Would transfer students have to settle for weaker schools or could they rely on an increase in their state “transportation” fund to look further out or even, as a last resort, pay a private non-public school? (See Transportation below)
    Enrollment deadlines: What if a student moves into a district in June? Without flexible transformation funding, will the student have to take “left-overs” or face incurring transportation costs to a high-performing school? Want to make sure all students, all the time, have access to high-performing schools.
    Selective Schools — “Selective admissions” is the modern version of “literacy tests” and a scourge on public education – charter and traditional.
    “At the end of the enrollment period, if there were not enough seats for all students, schools would be required to take additional students on a proportional basis.” — Probably not feasible to expand that quickly – facilities or staff. Rely on radii — :)

    Expulsion –
    As a matter of state policy, no school should be allowed to expel a student. Rather than tying up courts and significantly adding to costs, state agencies could appoint citizen panels in each region to hear these cases in a timely manner.
    The panel would simply determine an appropriate placement i.e. at an alternative school, or residential placement. In the case of incarceration, the panel would choose a competent ed provider with a proven track record of teaching incarcerated youth. The “expelling” school would be responsible for all of the funding, so as to discourage schools from expelling hard-to-teach students or abandoning incarcerated students.

    “Schools would be required to provide free transportation to any student within a four-mile radius.”
    Suggest: Students receive per-mile transportation funding from state. This is to assure that poor students are not stuck in a failing or marginal school because they can’t afford transportation outside the radius.
    Possible framework: Distribute transportation funding by radii. First radius could be that 4-mile ring. Transportation funding beyond that first, 4-mile radius would only be available to students who were unable to secure a slot in a high-performance school (school with student proficiency above 90%), within that 4-mile radius. The next radius could be 6 miles. No openings in high-performance schools within the 6-mile radius, move to the next ring. It could be capped at, let’s say, 15 or 20 miles.
    NOTE: In the event that no high-performing school with an opening exists within the maximum radius: Voucher may be used at private school within maximum radius.

    Information and Accountability
    Agree, all students tested annually.
    In spite of dummied-down state assessments, think it’s still best to compare apples-to-apples with one test for all. Just too hard for non-ed types to decipher. Even with a choice of tests, once schools determined which test shows the greatest growth, they’d all be using that one; so, it would eventually become a de facto common, state-wide assessment anyway!
    “…schools would only be closed for illegal behavior, not poor performance.”
    Schools exist to educate all students, not to prove they can operate within legal constraints.
    Give a school a maximum of 3 years to demonstrate statistically significant growth among ALL its students, or close it. If these schools were dental clinics and taxpayers paid thousands each year so every kid could get cavities filled; and, year after year, the clinic took the money, but only filled the cavities of a small percentage of the kids, we’d
    1) stop sending them the money
    2) open a new clinic(s) with a proven track record of filling children’s cavities

    “All public facilities would be transferred to a public trust.”
    Yes! Just be sure there’s a transparent, detailed, uniform policy in place to sell or lease properties to educational providers.
    Any formula-for-selling school buildings must assure the “need for a school” is determined by the number of students still enrolled in failing schools rather than just the number of students in a given district.
    In small urban areas, like Kansas city, student enrollment is just a fraction of what it was 20 years ago. With one exception, all the district’s open buildings operate well below student capacity. A building trust might conclude, therefore, that there is no need for another school in KC and refuse to sell/lease a vacant building.

    Non-School House Education Options
    “Tutoring, mentoring, specialized courses, etc. could all be purchased with a portion of a family’s voucher.”
    Not necessary. Let the money follow the student and let the school teams figure out best-practices for keeping students based upon a school-wide needs assessment.

    Sounds like “freedom to choose”, but could be a door squeaking open for re-segregation of education…
    Beyond the “literacy tests” (see above), schools aimed at high-income parents could impose segregation with a wide array of up-charges like high activity fees, costly uniforms, charges for 1-to-1 technology, field trips, job-shadowing, etc. For example, in Kansas City Public Schools, students must past a tough entrance exam to get into the district’s only high-performance high school. Once in, students still have to shoulder some high fees for the International Baccalaureate classes the school offers — some $300 per course.
    Suggest: All schools are granted tax-exempt status under the premise that they will serve the poor within their communities. Schools that fail to follow the rules could lose their tax-exempt status.
    In Sum
    “Government authorization and accountability would, for the most part, go away.”
    Government’s primary function would be to monitor equity issues (funding, enrollment, expulsion, etc.). Everything else would be left to families and schools.”
    In a world where all parents understood the value of education, this could work. We all understand the value of “good” food, right? And, if we all had the same amount of money with which to purchase food, we would all buy lots of highly-nourishing fresh fruits and vegetables, right?
    Nope. Kids from families with little or no concern for the relationship between health and food, would likely still get a diet mostly comprised of processed foods. Even if we put warning labels, in large red print on the packages, some parents would still chose crap for their kids.
    So, let’s do the kids a favor, let’s take bad food off the shelves. Let’s make sure that bad schools are not even an option.
    Government would still be on the hook for defining what constitutes “public” education and monitoring for compliance. In some cases, monitoring for compliance could actually mean more than checking to see if the boxes are marked. It could mean compliance with the “intent and purposes” of a requirement – or, is that just wishful thinking?
    “I’m sure I’ve gotten a lot wrong.” Love your humility, but you seldom get anything wrong. That’s why this is such a great blog!

  4. badgehs

    This is a small thing, yet it illustrates the difficulty of making such rules.
    “Schools would be required to provide free transportation to any student within a four-mile radius.”
    Our school regularly brings in kids from ten miles radius–and much farther by way of our twisty, windy, Appalachian township roads. (There’s been no school the past two days becuse no one imagines these roads to be passable after a half-hour weather event Monday morn.)

    If, as you say, the buildings (who would want them?) were transferred to a public trust and then to the private sector, we could imagine that much smaller, dispersed schools would result.

    Our high school graduates 175-200 students per year. It covers most of this county. Adjacent high schools are much smaller.

    What would be your target school size for areas like ours (the west is far less populous)? Would smaller high schools concern you as to available curriculum?


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