Higher education and the K-12 system are very different. Any attempts to compare them should be done carefully and thoughtfully. One should not oversimplify their distinct qualities to sell a radical K-12 agenda.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) did in his opening remarks defending Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos in her rushed confirmation hearing on January 17 and again in a recent Medium post. In his opening statement, Alexander claimed that DeVos’ fringe views that federal education funding should be converted into vouchers—including for use at private religious schools—is mainstream solely because it bears some resemblance to higher education’s approach. To defend this position, Alexander noted that higher education has used federal vouchers since the 1944 GI Bill for veterans. Noting that America has some of the best colleges in the world, Alexander asked, “Why is such a great idea for college students such a bad idea for K-12 students?”
Since he asked, here are three reasons why vouchers are different in higher education and K-12.
1. K-12 education does not have the underconsumption problem that higher ed vouchers seek to fix
The federal government’s assistance for higher education corrects an otherwise inefficient situation. Higher education provides important lifelong benefits for students and society. But it is also voluntary and costs money. As a result, without additional assistance, the United States would have national underconsumption of college, forgoing very important benefits both for individuals and the country overall.
That underconsumption problem does not exist in K-12. Public schools are required to be free and available for all students, who in turn must attend. Because of that, the goal of K-12 education funding is not to bring the price down so more people buy it. Instead, the goal is to increase the overall amount spent so that students receive better quality educations.
Federal funding for K-12 education is specifically designed to correct for one of the problems inherent in the local funding model: Low-income communities often lack the resources to provide students with the quality K-12 education that they deserve. Hence, these communities need large formula programs such as Title I, which provides money to districts and schools with large numbers of low-income students, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, to solve a quality problem. They do not need to solve the underconsumption problem that higher education vouchers address.
2. K-12 voucher proposals lack the federal oversight and accountability of higher ed vouchers
Proposals for vouchers in K-12 education tend to be grounded in ideas of local control. This essentially means leaving decisions around which schools or educational providers are eligible to receive the voucher funds up to the states or districts.
That concept is very different from how the federal voucher system operates in higher education. It relies on a triad of state, federal, and private actors. For starters, each college that receives federal financial aid must be authorized or approved by the state in which it operates. This is roughly equivalent to how the K-12 system works.
But colleges must do even more. They also have to obtain approval from a private nonprofit agency known as an accreditor. This agency sets out a series of criteria for reviewing colleges every few years, and schools that fail to meet these standards can lose their approval. While this role might seem similar to a charter school authorizer, the requirements are much more detailed. Any accreditation agency that grants access to federal aid must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education. This requires the accreditor to abide by a series of roughly 90 legislative and regulatory requirements, against which they are reviewed every few years. Accreditors that fail to follow these requirements can lose the ability to grant access to federal financial aid.
On top of all this, the U.S. Department of Education also has direct oversight authority for colleges’ use of federal financial aid dollars. It requires annual audits of the schools’ finances and judges them by the default rates of their loans. Private nonprofit and for-profit colleges are additionally subject to evaluations of their financial health. The Department of Education can directly cut off access to federal aid for colleges that perform poorly or violate laws.
To be fair, this system of higher education accountability is far from perfect. In particular, it too often allows low-performing institutions to continue receiving federal aid for longer than they should. But when compared to the oversight of K-12 voucher proposals, it represents a far more rigorous and consistent accountability process.
Voucher proponents like DeVos do not believe that private K-12 schools receiving vouchers should have to follow the same rules that public recipients of federal assistance must. This is the issue behind the revealing exchange between DeVos and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) at her confirmation hearing in which she refused to say that all schools receiving federal aid should be held to the same accountability standards and IDEA requirements.
3. Higher ed vouchers do not take money away from other schools; K-12 voucher proposals would
Higher education vouchers are not a zero-sum game. The Pell Grant program, which provides federal financial aid for low-income college students, is a de facto entitlement. That means every student who qualifies for a Pell Grant receives it. When an additional student gets a voucher, it does not take away money from anyone else—the entire program’s cost just gets bigger. To put it another way, when a student uses a Pell Grant to attend a private college, they are not taking any money received by a Pell Grant recipient at a public college.
Federal K-12 funding does not work that way. Programs such as Title I and IDEA allocate a set amount of money each year. These total amounts do not change if more or fewer students use the program. As a result, students who receive vouchers through Title I would pull money from the public system, leaving it worse off.
Although programs that bear a resemblance to vouchers—including the GI Bill and Pell Grants—have been used with some success in higher education, that does not mean voucher programs will be some sort of cure-all for the struggles in the K-12 system. Nor for that matter are vouchers perfect in higher ed, where aid programs still struggle with too many colleges that provide insufficient quality. This is particularly true for the form of vouchers espoused by DeVos, in which recipient schools would face no accountability and could even force students to waive their civil rights under federal law. Do not fall prey to a false comparison designed to make a radical position appear mainstream.
Ben Miller is the Senior Director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.