The immediate purpose of school voucher programs is straightforward enough: they are designed to provide families with cash subsidies that help defray the costs of a private education. The larger social objectives that school voucher programs purport to serve, however, vary considerably. Some people promote vouchers on the grounds that they inject competitive forces into a monopolistic public education system. Others exalt the perceived benefits of a religious education; namely the teaching of moral values, discipline, and prayer. To some they rescue students trapped in failing public schools, while still others suggest that vouchers are a civil rights issue, extending educational opportunities to predominantly poor, minority, and urban residents that heretofore have been the province of wealthier, whiter populations.
It is little surprise, then, that the specific features of actual voucher programs vary widely. A handful of programs are funded with taxpayer dollars, while numerous others are financed with private donations. Programs intermittently target students with disabilities, students attending chronically underperforming public schools, low-income families, or rural residents who lack ready access to a public school. The particular mix of participating secular and religious schools also varies from program to program, as do the specific requirements and accountability systems with which private schools must comply.
The first voucher experiment in the United States began in 1990 in the city of Milwaukee, where tuition subsidies of up to $2,500 were offered to low-income families. For the first eight years, the program could legally serve no more than 1.5 percent of the city’s public school population (approximately 1,700 students), and only secular schools were allowed to participate. In 1996 the state of Wisconsin permitted up to 15 percent of the Milwaukee public school population to participate in the program. The state also expanded the menu of private schooling options to include religious institutions, and it increased the monetary value of the vouchers. A lawsuit objecting to the expanded program’s constitutionality delayed its implementation until 1998, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the program. Since then, the numbers of private schools and students participating in the voucher program have expanded rapidly.
Other publicly funded voucher programs have been implemented in Cleveland, Ohio; Florida; and Washington, D.C. Ohio enacted a pilot voucher program starting in the 2006–2007 school year, and Vermont and Maine have voucher-like tuition programs that assist children residing in rural districts to attend either a secular private school or a public school in another district. In the 2005–2006 school year, roughly 14,200 non-special-education students participated in the voucher program in Milwaukee, while 5,700 did so in Cleveland, 733 in Florida, 1,090 in Washington, D.C., 5,450 in Vermont, and 6,250 in Maine. And thousands more beside have enrolled in privately funded voucher programs in such cities as Dayton, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; San Antonio, Texas; and New York City, as well as a national program operated by the Children’s Scholarship Fund.
The origin of the modern voucher movement can be traced to the Nobel laureate Milton Friedman’s defense of parental school choice in The Role of Government in Education (1955). Friedman promoted vouchers as a way to spark competition, improve the efficiency of public school systems, and improve the actual performance of schools. John Chubb and Terry Moe revived the idea in Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (1990), in which they explicated why private institutions have stronger incentives than public ones to mimic “best practices” in education.
In the early twenty-first century, a lively debate persists about whether the threat of losing students (and the dollars attached to them) to other districts or to private schools induces public schools to operate more efficiently. In one especially influential paper published in 2000, Caroline Hoxby found that competition among public school districts improves school productivity by simultaneously raising student achievement and lowering spending. Reanalyzing the same data, Jesse Rothstein came to very different conclusions, which Hoxby then refuted. In a separate exploration of the voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and San Antonio, Frederick Hess carved out a middle ground, arguing in 2000 that competition induces only moderate productivity increases, unless the internal structure of the public school system sets performance-based incentives throughout the system.
Whether vouchers raise the performance of those students who use them has been equally controversial. In 1995, John Witte, Troy Sterr, and Christopher Thorn claimed that students who participated in the original, limited voucher program in Milwaukee scored no higher than a random sample of public school students and low-income students. Using the unsuccessful applicants as an alternative control group, Jay Greene and colleagues found in 1996 that the voucher program had a significant positive effect on the students’ achievement in math and reading. Using yet another methodology, Cecilia Rouse concluded in 1998 that students participating in the program learned at a faster pace in math and at a similar pace in reading, compared to their peers in public schools.
Because families self-select into public and private school populations, it can be extraordinarily difficult to determine whether observed differences between them are due to the quality of the schools in the two sectors or the kinds of students who choose to attend them. The best evidence regarding vouchers, therefore, comes from randomized field trials, in which vouchers are assigned to an eligible population by means of a lottery. In several privately funded voucher programs in the United States, it was possible to conduct such analyses. After examining such programs in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, William Howell and Paul Peterson found that vouchers had positive effects on African-Americans’ test scores but no effect on those of white or Hispanic students. Additionally, as a result of using vouchers, parents did not appear any more or less involved in their children’s educational lives; parental satisfaction with their children’s schools improved substantially; and the probability that children attended religious services increased, though the frequency of church attendance among parents actually decreased.
Evaluations of voucher programs elsewhere in the world have been similarly mixed. In 2002, Angrist and colleagues found that Colombian students who were awarded vouchers repeated grades less often and achieved higher test scores. In a 2000 study, Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd offered no conclusions about the overall effect of New Zealand’s parental choice system, but they argued that the system exacerbated the social stratification of the nation’s school system. Both positive and negative effects on Chile’s unrestricted voucher program have been reported. Chang-Tai Hsieh and Miguel Urquiola found no evidence that vouchers improved average educational outcomes, though they observed that the best public school students left for private schools as a result of the program. Francisco Gallego, meanwhile, found that the competition increased students’ test scores in public and voucher schools alike.
In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, rejecting the claim that the use of public funds to send children to religious schools violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause. The Court found the program to be neutral with respect to religion because parents were allowed “to exercise genuine choice among options” that included religious and secular private school, magnet schools, charter schools, and traditional public schools.
Despite Zelman, controversy continues to plague voucher initiatives. Voucher programs have faced strong opposition from teachers unions, the existing public school establishment, and such advocacy groups as People for the American Way and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Through legislative battles and lawsuits, these groups have effectively slowed the expansion of school voucher programs. Outside of Milwaukee, where tremendous growth has occurred, only about 7,500 more students around the nation used publicly funded vouchers in 2005 than in 1991. Though considerably more students have participated in privately financed school voucher programs, topping out at over 100,000 in 2000 (Ladner 2001), enrollments over the last several years appear to have either leveled off or declined.
State judges are partially responsible for arresting the expansion of voucher programs. A pilot voucher program enacted in Colorado in 2003 never saw the light of the day because the state’s supreme court ruled that it violated the state constitution’s requirement that local districts maintain control of locally raised funds and of “any discretion over the character of instruction participating students will receive at district expense” (Owens v. Colorado Congress of Parents, 2004). In early 2006, school vouchers suffered another setback when the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state’s program in the name of educational “uniformity” in Holmes v. Bush. Other voucher programs have been defeated by voters. In November 2000, both California and Michigan voters rejected school-voucher ballot initiatives.
Public support for vouchers has proven difficult to gauge, not least because of survey respondents’ sensitivity to the wording of questions. In 2002, for instance, the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll asked for people’s opinion about vouchers in two different ways. A majority of respondents supported vouchers if asked one way but opposed them if asked another way. Since 2002 the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll has left out the more neutral of the two questions, which, incidentally, also yielded higher support for vouchers. Regardless of question wording, however, in 2001 Terry Moe found that low-income, black, and Hispanic residents in disadvantaged school districts constituted the strongest proponents of vouchers, while wealthy white suburban residents constituted the strongest opponents.
Among political elites, support for vouchers varies markedly across party lines. Republicans tend to favor them, championing the supposed power of unfettered markets and small government. Most Democrats, who have close ties to unions and a history of supporting public education, are skeptical of many forms of choice, especially vouchers. Indeed, congressional votes for the 2004 District of Columbia pilot voucher plan split along party lines. In the House, Republicans were 52 percentage points more likely than Democrats to support the plan, while in the Senate they were 42 percentage points more likely to do so.
Looking forward at the national level, school vouchers face an obvious political challenge. Those political elites who are predisposed to support vouchers (Republicans) disproportionately represent constituents who oppose them (suburban whites), while those elites (Democrats) who represent strong proponents of vouchers (urban minorities) also have strong ties to teachers unions, which vigorously oppose them. Despite calls for a national voucher program, the expansion of voucher programs is likely to be the continued result of a combination of privately funded initiatives and an unusual alliance of younger African-American city leaders and Republican mayors and governors.
SEE ALSO Education; Education, Unequal; Educational Quality; Schooling; Schooling in the USA
Angrist, Joshua, Eric Bettinger, Erik Bloom, Elizabeth King, and Michael Kremer. 2002. Vouchers for Private Schooling in Colombia: Evidence from a Randomized Natural Experiment. American Economic Review 92 (5): 1535–1558.
Chubb, John E., and Terry Moe. 1990. Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Fiske, Edward B., and Helen F. Ladd. 2000. When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Friedman, Milton. 1955. The Role of Government in Education. In Economics and the Public Interest, ed. Robert Solo. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Gallego, Francisco A. 2006. Voucher-School Competition, Incentives, and Outcomes: Evidence from Chile. Working Paper. Department of Economics, MIT. http://econ-www.mit.edu.
Greene, Jay P., Paul E. Peterson, Jaingtao Du, Leesa Boeger, and Curtis L. Frazier. 1996. The Effectiveness of School Choice in Milwaukee: A Secondary Analysis of Data from the Program’s Evaluation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Program on Education Policy and Governance.
Hess, Frederick. 2002. Revolution at the Margins: The Impact of Competition on Urban School Systems. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Howell, William G., and Paul E. Peterson. 2006. The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Hoxby, Caroline M. 2000. Does Competition among Public Schools Benefit Students and Taxpayers? American Economic Review 90 (5): 1209–1238.
Hoxby, Caroline M. 2005. Competition among Public Schools: A Reply to Rothstein (2004). Working Paper 11216. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
Hsieh, Chang-Tai, and Miguel Urquiola. 2006. The Effects of Generalized School Choice on Achievement and Stratification: Evidence from Chile’s Voucher Program. Journal of Public Economics 90: 1477–1503.
Ladner, Matthew. 2001. Just Doing It 5: Surveying America’s Privately Funded School Choice Grants Programs for Growth, Impact, and Progress. Austin, TX: Children First America.
Moe, Terry. 2001. Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Rothstein, Jesse. 2005. Does Competition among Public Schools Benefit Students and Taxpayers? A Comment on Hoxby (2000). Working Paper 11215. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
Rouse, Cecilia Elena. 1998. Private School Vouchers and Student Achievement: An Evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Quarterly Journal of Economics 113 (2): 553–602.
Witte, John F., Troy D. Sterr, and Christopher A. Thorn. 2005. Fifth-Year Report: Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Madison: University of Wisconsin, Department of Political Science. http://www.lafollette.wisc.edu/publications.
William G. Howell
In the United States a school voucher is a subsidy that grants limited purchasing power to a student to choose among a restricted set of private schools. In the traditional school funding configuration, public funds for public schools flow from national and state governments and local communities, directly to school districts. A family wishing to send its child to a private school must do so with its own funds. A large-scale voucher plan would change that arrangement: in a voucher plan, families that wish to enroll their children in private school could have the tuition partially or completely covered by tax-levied dollars.
The idea of school vouchers is as old as the American Revolution. The American revolutionary Thomas Paine advocated a voucher system because he felt that compulsory education violated individual conscience. He was following the perspective of John Stuart Mill, who believed that state-sponsored education was a contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another. During the 1960s, educational activists such as Ted Sizer advocated vouchers to enable urban children to escape their local public schools.
In the 1990s, the voucher movement gained new momentum, which led to voucher pilot sites in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida. In 2001, the Rand Corporation published a research report by Brian Gill, Michael Timpane, and Dominic I. Brewer evaluating the effects of choice on several outcomes: student achievement, parental satisfaction, access, integration, and civic socialization. The report determined that small, experimental, privately funded vouchers may show modest benefits after a year or two for African-American students but that there is no evidence of benefit for children of other racial groups. Parental satisfaction is high among choice parents, although the number of families involved in the study was quite small.
Some voucher programs targeted specifically at low-income, low-achieving minority students have provided access for some students. In general, however, most choice programs have not extended access opportunities to the poor, and in fact voucher-like tuition tax benefits favor middle-and upper-income families. Likewise in highly segregated communities voucher programs may modestly increase racial integration, but evidence from abroad suggests that most choice programs result in increasing the degree of educational stratification, not decreasing it. In terms of civic socialization, there is little distinction to be made between private and public schools.
To a large degree, the debate over school vouchers has less to do with empirical outcomes than with deep-seated beliefs about liberty, community, and the role of individual preference in creating a good society. The intensity and tone of the debate depends in great part upon the more general spirit of the times; that is, to the degree that market competition is seen as the way to a productive and just society, vouchers will appeal to a substantial minority of citizens. To the degree that government is seen as the protector of democracy, vouchers will appeal to a smaller group of citizens, many of whom resist government schooling as a matter of principal. Debate over vouchers also involves questions about separation between church and state, since religious schools could become voucher recipients. At the start of the twenty-first century, the debate over school vouchers was refueled by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that lowered the legal wall between church and state.
Gill, Brian, Michael Timpane, and Dominic I. Brewer. 2001. Rhetoric Versus Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know about Vouchers and Charter Schools. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Education.
Hanus, Jerome J., and Peter W. Cookson Jr. 1996. Choosing Schools: Vouchers and American Education. Washington, DC: American University Press.
Peterson, Paul E. 2001. "Choice in American Education." In A Primer on America's Schools, ed. Terry M. Moe. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.
Rouse, Cecelia E. 1997. "Schools and Student Achievement: More Evidence from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program." Working Paper No. 396, Industrial Relations Section. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Steuerle, C. Eugene. 1999. "Common Issues for Voucher Programs." In Vouchers and the Provision of Public Services, ed. C. Eugene Steuerle et al. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Witte, John F. 1996. "Who Benefits from the Milwaukee Choice Program?" In Who Chooses? Who Loses? Culture, Institutions, and the Unequal Effects of School Choice, ed. Bruce Fuller et al. New York: Teachers College Press.
Peter W. Cookson Jr.
SCHOOL VOUCHERS, state-funded tuition payments for students at private or public elementary and secondary schools emerged in the late 1900s as the most sweeping of the so-called parental choice reforms, and encompass divergent groups of supporters. The history of school vouchers dates back to 1792 when the revolutionary Thomas Paine proposed a voucher-like plan for England, but popular and legislative support in the United States did not begin until the early 1950s, when states in the Deep South and Virginia established tuition grants to counter anticipated school desegregation. In a 1955 article, economist Milton Friedman proposed vouchers as free-market education, to separate government financing of schools from their administration. Segregationists justified tuition grants on such grounds, but in a series of decisions between 1964 and 1969, the federal courts rejected them as evasions of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. Vouchers gained favor outside the South in the 1960s, with advocates of alternative schools, liberals seeking educational equity, and defenders of urban parochial schools among the supporters. The U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity sponsored a 1970 study that recommended compensatory vouchers, culminating in a five-year, public school-only demonstration program in Alum Rock, California. In Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist (1973), the Supreme Court set aside a New York tuition reimbursement program for parochial school students. In the 1980s, with support from the executive branch, vouchers had resurgence, via alliances of free-market conservatives, local activists, and private school supporters responding to inadequate academic achievement in urban public schools. Although voters rejected school vouchers in several statewide referenda in the 1990s, legislatures established pilot programs in three states. Wisconsin established a program for students at private secular schools in Milwaukee in 1990, followed in 1995 by an Ohio program that encompassed religious schools in Cleveland, and a 1999 statewide program in Florida for students in low-achieving school districts that also included sectarian schools. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), the Supreme Court ruled the Cleveland program constitutional, paving the way for expansion to religious schools elsewhere.
Friedman, Milton. "The Role of Government in Education." In Economics and the Public Interest, edited by Robert A. Solo. Rutgers, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1955.
O'Brien, Molly Townes. "Private School Tuition Vouchers and the Realities of Racial Politics." Tennessee Law Review 64, no. 2 (1997): 359–407.
Witte, John F. The Market Approach to Education. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Under most education systems, government funding is allocated to state-run schools that enjoy the exclusive right to offer public education services. School vouchers are an alternative funding mechanism in which parents receive a voucher that can be redeemed at any state-run or independent school of their choice. According to economists ranging from the eighteenth century's Adam Smith to contemporary Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, parental choice, competition between schools, and other market forces improve educational quality and lower costs for all families.
The states of Maine and Vermont have had small-scale voucher programs operating since the 1800s, but attention in the early twenty-first century was focused on more recent systems such as the one serving Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Critics argue that vouchers violate the separation of church and state (because parents can use them at private schools run by religious organizations), and that they fail to serve the most needy and difficult to educate. Others caution that existing programs are too limited to offer the benefits of a true education marketplace. Defenders point to court rulings and mounting experimental evidence to rebut these charges.
Coulson, Andrew J. Market Education: The Unknown History. New York: Transaction Books, 1999.
Henig, Jeffrey R. Rethinking School Choice: Limits of the Market Metaphor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Levin, Henry M. Privatizing Education: Can the School Marketplace Deliver Freedom of Choice, Efficiency, Equity, and Social Cohesion? Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001.
Lieberman, Myron. Privatization and Educational Choice. New York:St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Merrifield, John. The School Choice Wars. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Education, 2001.
school vouch·er • n. a government-funded voucher redeemable for tuition fees at a school other than the public school that a student could attend free.