Vouchers: A Trap, Not A Choice

On November 6, 2013 Applied Research Center (ARC) was rebranded as Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. The content on this page was published on the ARC website prior to the rebrand.
April 13, 2006

Executive Summary

In 1993 California voters rejected Proposition 174, a private school voucher proposal, by the overwhelming margin of 70-30 percent. This November, California voters are once again asked to divest from public education through another initiative, Proposition 38, which would provide a $4,000 tuition subsidy for private institutions. Placed on the ballot by multi-millionaire Tim Draper, the measure offers false hope to those in the most need of education reform.

To further their goal of privatizing public education, voucher proponents have seized upon the legitimate concerns of parents of color, whose children face academically crippling racial inequities in many urban public schools. Disparities in access to quality teaching staff, college preparatory courses and the resulting growing achievement gap between whites and children of color have created fertile ground for voucher supporters. But wWhat Proposition 38 offers is a trap, not a choice.

The report begins by noting the racist history of the voucher movement, from the southern "white academies" of the desegregation era through the eugenics advocacy of voucher ideologues. A comparison of Proposition 38 to the voucher programs already implemented in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Cleveland, Ohio, and the state of Florida reveals several of the measure’s loopholes. The California proposal was written without minimal safeguards for racial fairness: no income limit for those receiving vouchers; no tuition cap to prevent schools from charging more in tuition than low-income families with vouchers could afford; no requirement that private schools accept voucher students.

De Facto Discrimination
Proposition 38 does not give parents more choices, but actually grants power to private institutions to pick and choose the students they want to enroll. While blatant racial discrimination would be illegal, the program would allow practices that have a racist impact. Private schools could deny access to voucher students based on academic record, disciplinary record, inability to pay additional tuition, fluency in English, and their own subjective criteria. In addition, private schools would not be required to report on the racial composition of their student bodies or applicants; there would be no mechanisms to hold private schools accountable if they engaged in de facto discrimination. Those low-income students who did manage to gain admission to private schools would find that public school enhancements such as reduced-price lunches or transportation are not offered.

Vouchers Exacerbate Existing Inequality

The majority of students of color who would be left in public schools if Prop. 38 passes will face increasingly poor conditions. Already under-funded schools would be further drained of resources under the voucher program: the non-partisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that public school districts would lose almost $7,000 in state funding for each voucher student and anticipates that the overall net cost of the voucher program could be as high as $1.1 billion for the first several years.

People of Color and Polling on Vouchers

The report then addresses the claim that people of color overwhelmingly support private school vouchers in preference to public education. Actually, surveys present conflicting results. Much evidence suggests that people of color prefer reforming public schools to turning to private education by way of vouchers. People of color, on the whole, have a greater interest in the public school system and are more driven to explore a range of education reform measures than whites are in California. Therefore, it is dishonest to separate support for vouchers from support for general school reforms.


With or without vouchers, the majority of the nation’s children of color will continue to attend public schools. Though there is a common public perception that all public schools are inadequate, many public schools, especially those in wealthy and white neighborhoods, offer excellent academic opportunities. Public schools are not inherently flawed, but they are grossly unequal.

Today, the guiding principle of fundamental school reform must be based on the "3 Es"—Excellence and Equity for Everyone. Excellence without equity breeds division, while equity without excellence breeds mediocrity. The SMART Schools proposal below offers a far better blueprint than vouchers for redirecting public education policy and funding priorities in ways that are academically sound and equitable.

Small classes and schools
Money for high quality education for all students, especially those with the greatest needs
Authentic assessment and high standards instead of standardized high-stakes tests
Racial and economic equity in educational policies, opportunities, and outcomes
Top-notch teaching and rigorous curriculum

Related Documents

Vouchers: A Trap, Not A Choice Full Report (218c pdf)

News Release:  Report Charges School Vouchers are Racist