Private school vouchers have been under scrutiny since 1989 when the Wisconsin legislature approved the first school voucher program to be established in the Milwaukee School District. The controversial school choice debate continues today as policymakers and researchers grapple over whether school vouchers are a fair and effective solution for parents to transfer their children out of potentially failing schools and enroll them in quality classrooms where they can thrive.

The most recent installment in the “Debates of the Century @NYU Wagner” event series featured two seasoned experts weighing in on the statement, “Public funds should be used to support private school vouchers.” The debate featured clear and compelling arguments from the speakers—neither of whom are extremists on the issue—who both agree that there should be some form of school choice in America. The question is, with what regulations and at what cost? Fifteen percent of the audience was also undecided at the beginning of the debate.

Audience poll at beginning of the debate on school vouchers.

Michael Petrilli, Thomas B. Fordham Institute president and school voucher advocate, set the tone of the evening by saying, “hopefully we can model what it’s like to disagree, but to do it agreeably.” His opponent, Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, echoed him by saying that “Mike is a smart guy, a witty guy, and the kind of conservative you can talk to.”

Evidence-based policy research is essential to keeping our democracy strong.

In Petrilli’s opening statement, he cited anecdotal evidence of polls and interviews which consistently show that many low-income and minority parents who don’t have great educational options affirm they want to send their children to parochial schools. He argued that when policymakers put their values first, that is, categorize religious schools as “unworthy” of voucher money, they are second-guessing and undermining the ability of parents to make their own choices.

Kahlenberg put forth four counter arguments to explain why private school vouchers are inadequate fixes to our flawed school system. He explained how private school vouchers can divert resources from public schools, diminish accountability—especially for civil rights protections— enhance segregation (many voucher programs don’t cover the full cost of private school, shutting out low-income families), and perpetuate the public’s disillusionment that private translates to better—it does not.

The moderator, award-winning freelance journalist Kyle Spencer, spent thirty minutes grilling the debaters, followed by posing audience-submitted questions. After an hour and a half of deliberation, Michael Petrilli emerged as the more “persuasive” speaker, having gained 15 percent of audience poll voters (see below end results). But more importantly, a nuanced debate was had that delivered reliable information in an approachable way, which is always the goal in this debate series.

Audience poll at end of the debate on school vouchers.

To keep this open-ended discourse of private school vouchers going, Petrilli and Kahlenberg have kindly responded to the submitted questions that were unable to be asked live at the event. Read even more about private school vouchers in their answers to your burning questions below:

Q: What do you make of the research showing that public schools improve in response to competition from vouchers?

A: Richard Kahlenberg: Whatever benefits public school students gain from the existence of voucher competition, the same benefits can be had when public schools face competition from public magnet schools or public charter schools. Magnet and charter schools are much more accountable than private schools, and they don’t discriminate based on religion or sexual orientation the way many private schools do. To the extent competition is good for schools, we can get the benefits from public school choice programs without taking all the risks that private school vouchers entail.

Q: Many private schools are two times to three times more than the value of the voucher, how will low-income families make up the difference?

A: Michael Petrilli: Most voucher programs require participating private schools to accept the value of the voucher as the full tuition. In other words, the schools eat the rest of the tuition themselves. This is one reason why it’s hard to get high-end private schools to participate.

A. Richard Kahlenberg: Programs vary, but in some states, private school vouchers effectively exclude low-income students who cannot make up the gap between what the state will pay in tuition and what students can afford.  This puts the lie to the claim that voucher supporters just want low-income families to have the same choice as wealthy patrons of private schools.  The choice is not provided to parents and students, but rather to schools.

Q: What is the argument for voucher schools to be selective with their student populations, but not require teachers certification?

A: Richard Kahlenberg: With the exception of a few selective magnet schools, the vast majority of public schools are non-selective. Private schools, by contrast, are much more likely to be selective and choose to take only the students they want. And yet at the same time, private schools don’t have safeguards in place to ensure that teachers are actually certified to teach, as the public schools do. This odd mix of elitism in selecting students and lax standards in selecting teachers presents the worst of all worlds.

A: Michael Petrilli: There is very little evidence that teacher certification is linked to teacher effectiveness. In fact, very little of what we can measure before teachers enter the classroom seems to matter much–certification, type of college attended, etc.. Even verbal ability, which has some connection to effectiveness, is a weak predictor. So there’s a pretty good argument for getting rid of teacher certification for traditional public schools too!

Q: How might school vouchers affect the schooling of children (across economic classes) with conditions like autism and ADHD?

A: Michael Petrilli: Several states have enacted voucher programs explicitly targeted at students with autism or other disabilities, as a way to give their families more choices than those afforded by the traditional public schools and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Not surprisingly, those families are very happy with their new schools.

A: Richard Kahlenberg: My colleague Kimberly Quick notes that by accepting vouchers—even in programs designed specifically for special needs children—families may be unknowingly giving up their rights to federal protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In circumstances like this, a private school that finds that it cannot or will not accommodate these additional needs of a disabled student, including a student with  autism or ADHD, can legally ask him or her to leave, or can refuse to provide him or her with the same services and rights that the student would be afforded in a public school. Private schools that do provide these protections and accommodations may also (legally) charge fees above and beyond the value of the voucher.

While some individual private schools, Quick notes, might be able to provide strong opportunities to disabled students, there isn’t a clear mandate for private schools to actually guarantee protections under many voucher systems. We would be better off strengthening the capacity of public schools to serve these students well.

Q: If school vouchers provide the best results, why not follow the program to its effective end and privatize the entire education system?

A: Michael Petrilli: I did not, and would not, argue that school vouchers provide the best results. I would say that the evidence is mixed in terms of test scores, though still strong when it comes to long-term outcomes like high school graduation rates. On that score, students receiving vouchers tend to do better. But keep in mind that those studies were of targeted voucher programs—ones where only low-income students were eligible. That doesn’t tell us what kind of results we might get if middle class and upper middle class students participated too. Some charter school research shows that suburban charters (which tend to serve more affluent kids) do worse in terms of test scores.

And partly for that reason I don’t want to have a universal voucher program, or even a universal charter system. Some pockets of American education (mostly in the leafy suburbs) are still working reasonably well, and there we should focus on incremental improvements there. Plus those parents already exercise “choice” via the real estate market. My goal is to expand choice to families that don’t have it, because they are too poor to use the real estate market to their advantage or afford private school tuition.