Through the Looking Glass: The Rebranding of School Vouchers

    Voucher advocates are growing increasingly irritable. Texans aren’t buying into their fforts to rebrand vouchers – a term that even voucher supporters acknowledge is political kryptonite – into warmer, fuzzier sounding “Education Savings Accounts” (ESAs) and “tax credit scholarships.”

    It is clear why they want to rebrand vouchers. By comparison, “savings accounts” and “scholarships” sound positively virtuous. The very word “voucher” sounds exactly like the taxpayer-funded government subsidy that it is, while “savings accounts” and “scholarships” are designed to evoke frugality, benevolence, and the warm glow of merit.

    Voucher proponents conceived of these neo-voucher schemes, so they can call them what they want. But this is Texas, not Wonderland. Don’t get snookered by the word games. A voucher is a voucher, no matter what market-researched name you slap on it.

    "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

    "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

    "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."

    — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


    The essence of a voucher is the state directing taxpayer funds that would otherwise be available for public purposes to pay for students who elect to receive a private education instead of attending public schools.

    While touted as something other than a voucher, tax credit scholarships were first developed in Arizona as a way to evade church-state restrictions that were exposing voucher programs to legal challenges. ESAs are just the latest variant on the theme. That tax credit scholarships and ESAs do this indirectly by routing the money to a private school (or, in the case of the ESA, an even broader array of private vendors) through parents or the Tax Code is a distinction that has some implications for the legal niceties of church-state doctrine, but makes zero difference in an economic sense.

    Law professor James Dwyer of William & Mary Law School uses an extended analogy to make this point nicely:

    If I give my daughters money for the movies but limit them to one of three currently playing movies, they know that I am paying for the movie, not them. If my daughters call me from school and say they need to pay fifty dollars right away in order to get a yearbook (teenagers not being known for excellence at advance planning ) and I tell them to use their own money for now and get reimbursed by me when they get home, they understand that I am the one who bought the yearbook, having decided that it was a worthy use of my money.

    VOUCHER_MEME-February-2017Likewise, if my daughter is at basketball practice and calls to tell me she needs fifty dollars right away for the team sneakers, but my ex-wife is picking her up from practice rather than me, I would ask whether her mother could give her the money now and get reimbursed by me later. My daughter would understand that it was I who paid for the sneakers, not her and not her mother, again based on my decision that it is a worthy use of my money. Finally, if they needed fifty dollars for a yearbook or sneakers and they owed me fifty dollars from some previous transaction, and I told them that instead of repaying that debt they should just pay for the yearbook or sneakers themselves and call it even, they would recognize that I had effectively paid for the yearbook or sneakers. Such understanding does not require great economic sophistication.

    Thus, with every type of program I include within the description of “voucher programs,” the state knowingly directs some public money to private schools explicitly or implicitly approved by the state … [1]

    Dwyer’s point is that no matter how you tinker with the financial mechanics of transferring taxpayer funds from the state into private hands, the economic effect is ultimately the same. With the current ESA proposal, these funds will be drawn or diverted from the state budget, and Texas taxpayers will be left to pick up the tab for a tax giveaway with no accountability for the results.

    And those are facts that word games can’t hide.

    [1] Dwyer, J.G., No Accounting for School Vouchers, 48 Wake Forest L. Rev. 361, 382-83 (2013).


    Education Savings accounts and tax credit scholarships are the same ol’ voucher, also known as government subsidies for private schools with no transparency, accountability, or proven results.

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