Expert Commentary

Private school vouchers: An explainer (with research) to help you navigate school choice policies

We created this explainer to help journalists understand and ask more probing questions about private school choice programs, which offer families public money to pay for private school.

private school vouchers school choice education savings accounts
(Pixabay/Mohamed Hassan)

Last year, at least 31 states considered legislation to create or expand programs that use public money to help parents pay for a private, K-12 education, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2024, conservative leaders and political candidates — including the two Republicans vying for the U.S. presidency — are pushing to make private school vouchers and other forms of tuition assistance even more widely available.

Local governments in the U.S. have, on a limited basis, provided funding for their residents to attend private schools since the mid-1800s, starting with rural communities in Maine and Vermont. The practice has grown increasingly common in recent decades, and even more common the past few years. Florida introduced the first statewide private school voucher program in 1999, offering children in the lowest performing public schools the option of transferring to a private school.

A total of 310,770 students in 16 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico used vouchers in 2023, according to a recent report from EdChoice. a nonprofit organization that advocates for school choice. Another 312,471 students in 21 states used tax-credit scholarships, which are similar to vouchers, to attend private school, EdChoice reports.

Private school vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts

Three of the most common programs governments implement to help families pay for private school are private school vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts. Many politicians, journalists and others refer to all three as vouchers. But there are key differences:

  • Private school vouchers are public funds that generally cover all or a portion of private school tuition. Families typically do not receive this money, however. Program administrators pay private schools directly.
  • Tax-credit scholarships also cover all or part of a student’s tuition bill. This money also tends to be paid to private schools directly. A primary difference between these two programs: While government agencies take money from their own coffers to offer vouchers, they fund tax-credit scholarships indirectly. They give businesses and other taxpayers tax credits in exchange for donating money needed to provide scholarships.
  • Education savings accounts, or ESAs, are accounts containing public funds that students can spend on a variety of education-related materials and services. Tutoring, online courses, standardized testing fees and homeschooling materials are generally included on states’ lists of allowable expenses. Families decide how they want to spend those dollars and receive prepaid debit cards to do it.

States offering ESAs usually call them scholarships. Florida and Arizona, for example, named their ESAs “empowerment” scholarships.

Academic researchers, meanwhile, often refer to these three programs, as a group, as “private school choice” programs or “voucher and voucher-like” programs.

Another important detail: In recent decades, private school choice programs in the U.S. have been largely restricted to certain student groups, including low- and middle-income youth, children in foster care, kids with disabilities and students attending poor performing public schools. Some states have made their programs “universal,” meaning all students within their boundaries can participate.

Arizona, in 2022, became the first state to introduce a universal education savings account program. As of November 2023, a total of eight states had enacted private school choice programs that are universal or nearly universal, Politico reports.

An extraordinarily divisive topic

In the coming months, journalists across the country will be reporting on legislative efforts to create or change private school choice programs. In many communities, journalists will need to cover new legislation as they also cover the challenges government officials will likely face implementing the policies lawmakers approved last year or in prior years.

Among the new proposals:

  • A Republican legislator in Kentucky filed a bill Jan. 26 aimed at amending her state’s constitution to allow public funding to be spent on private education.
  • Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced plans to introduce a bill during this year’s legislative session that would dramatically increase the number of students eligible for one of his state’s education savings accounts, which he has named Education Freedom Scholarships. Lee, a Republican, wants to open the program to all students statewide during the 2025-26 school year.
  • Earlier this month, Republican lawmakers in New Mexico announced they plan to establish a tax-credit scholarship that would help lower-income students there afford private school, according to the nonprofit news outlet, Source New Mexico.
  • Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, wants to overhaul — and shrink — school choice programs in that state, the Associated Press reports.

In the U.S., lawmakers’ support for or opposition to private school choice programs tends to follow political party lines. Conservative and conservative-leaning legislators often support programs that offer parents more control over where and how their children will be educated. Liberal and liberal-leaning legislators often oppose these programs because of concerns about program accountability, drops in test scores in some states, and using public money to support private schools, religious instruction, wealthy students and homeschooling families.

Researchers who study private school choice also are divided, in their opinions and their interpretations of what studies show, making it even tougher for journalists to distill research findings for the public.

Last year, Josh Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, wrote essays explaining his opposition to vouchers for Time magazine and the Brookings Institution last year.

He advises journalists to read studies of private school choice programs operating in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and the District of Columbia. In his Time piece, he links to four papers released or published in 2016 or 2018 — each examining one of those locations.

“Although small, pilot-phase programs showed some promise two decades ago, new evaluations of vouchers in Washington, D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio show some of the largest test score drops ever seen in the research record — between -0.15 and -0.50 standard deviations of learning loss,” he writes in Time in April 2023. “That’s on par with what the COVID-19 pandemic did to test scores, and larger than Hurricane Katrina’s impacts on academics in New Orleans.”

Patrick J. Wolf, a professor of education policy and the 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas, has spoken out in favor of private school choice. He recommends journalists rely most heavily on the most rigorous studies to help them explain the impacts of vouchers and voucher-like programs.

Wolf also stresses the importance of journalists checking the quality of the studies that politicians, government officials, advocates, critics and others cite.

The Journalist’s Resource steers journalists toward research that has undergone peer review, an evaluation process performed by independent experts that is designed for quality control. We also encourage journalists to seek out randomized, controlled trials and meta-analyses, when possible.

A randomized, controlled trial, a method of studying the effect of a program or intervention, is widely considered the gold standard in research. A meta-analysis, also one of the most reliable forms of research, is a systematic study of the numerical data collected from a group of studies on the same topic.

When it comes to complicated, politicized topics like school choice, though, journalists should cautiously vet findings even from peer-reviewed studies using these research methods.

Both Cowen and Wolf created short documents to present the research to date in simple terms. We got permission to share Cowen’s “Quick Hits of Voucher Research” and Wolf’s “Summary of Research Findings Regarding the Effects of Private School Choice Programs.”

A November 2022 policy brief coauthored by Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy who directs Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, also examines private school choice research. In it, Lubienski warns against evaluating a program by simply comparing the number of studies that show benefits against the number of studies that shows harms.

Such an assessment does not take into account differences in study quality or size or the magnitude of the impacts that were found.

“Such simplistic representations of the research evidence obscure important factors in understanding the effectiveness and potential of voucher programs,” Lubienski and doctoral student Yusuf Canbolat write in the policy brief.

Research to help journalists report on private school choice

We recommend familiarizing yourself with the breadth of academic research on this topic. It’s important to have a basic understanding of how private school choice programs work and how they affect students — those using public funds for private school as well as their peers who remain in neighboring public schools.

To help you get started, we’ve gathered and summarized a sampling of studies of vouchers and voucher-like programs. These four peer-reviewed papers are not meant to be representative of all the research to date. But they are among the most recent and offer insights into how these initiatives impact student achievement in various countries, including the U.S., Canada, Chile, India, New Zealand and Sweden.  

We included two meta-analyses, both of which analyze more than a decade of numerical data to provide a broad overview of the effects of vouchers and voucher-like programs.

Together, these four papers suggest:

  • Studies from the 1990s and early 2000s generally indicate that U.S. students participating in these programs do as well or better on standardized tests than their public school peers. But studies released or published after around 2015 show a shift in performance. They indicate program participants do about the same or worse — in some cases, student scores have dropped considerably.
  • When researchers looked at student achievement in the U.S., India and Colombia, they found that kids who participate in these programs, as a whole, earn higher test scores as they progress through private school. But the change is driven largely by Indian and Colombian students. The researchers note this might be due to large differences in the quality of education provided by public and private schools in developing countries.
  • U.S. public school students earn slightly higher test scores in communities where private school vouchers and similar tuition assistance programs are available. Researchers explain that this appears to be a response to competition from area private schools. They also note the increase is very small.
  • There’s evidence that high school graduation rates are higher among private school choice students in the U.S.

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Effects of Maturing Private School Choice Programs on Public School Students
David N. Figlio, Cassandra M. D. Hart and Krzysztof Karbownik. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, November 2023.

The study: Researchers look at how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program affected public schools in the first 15 years after it was launched. They examine data from the Florida Department of Education and Florida Department of Health to better understand how public school students fared when tens of thousands of their peers left public schools to attend private schools using vouchers from 2002-03 to 2017-18.

This paper analyzes changes in standardized test scores, absenteeism and suspension rates among public school students in grades 3 to 8. It also compares public schools in terms of the amount of competition they faced from private schools even before voucher programs began. Researchers created a “Competitive Pressure Index” for public schools, based on factors such as the proximity and number of private schools operating in the same area and the religiosity of the surrounding community.

The findings: As the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program grew during its first 15 years, public school students in grades 3 to 8, as a whole, earned slightly higher test scores and missed fewer days of class. The impact was strongest at public schools that faced competition from private schools in 2000, the year before the voucher program was created.

The authors write: “We find that as public schools are more exposed to private school choice, their students experience increasing benefits as the program matures,” the researchers conclude. “We find that the public school students most positively affected by increased exposure to private school choice are comparatively low-socioeconomic status (SES) students (those with lower family incomes and lower maternal education levels).”

The Competitive Effects of School Choice on Student Achievement: A Systematic Review
Huriya Jabbar; et al. Educational Policy, March 2022.

The study: Researchers analyzed 92 studies published from 1992 to 2015 to determine whether competition generated by school choice programs reduces or improves student achievement. All the studies examined focus on school choice programs in the U.S.

The findings: When a private school choice program launches and public schools must compete for students, student scores on standardized exams rise very slightly for students who leave their public schools to attend private schools and for their peers who stay behind.

The results indicate that competition created by private school choice programs has a more positive impact on student achievement than the competition created by charter schools. However, the changes are so small they are, for practical purposes, negligible, lead author Huriya Kanwal Jabbar, an associate professor of education policy at the University of Southern California, wrote in an email to The Journalist’s Resource.

In the authors’ words: “A key argument for school choice made by policymakers and advocates is that school choice has the potential to benefit historically disadvantaged students in particular, due to its ability to break up strong links between poor neighborhoods and underfunded local schools. We tested this relationship, and we found that our measure of poverty, the percentage of students eligible for [free or reduced-price school meals], did not moderate the effects of competition. However, we found some evidence that the sample percentage of minority students was a significant moderator, suggesting that school competition may have a larger influence on student achievement for minority students. This is consistent with advocates’ claims that choice may improve educational opportunities for marginalized students in particular, not just for those who choose, but also for those ‘left behind’ in traditional public schools.”

The Participant Effects of Private School Vouchers Around the Globe: A Meta-Analytic and Systematic Review
M. Danish Shakeel, Kaitlin P. Anderson and Patrick J. Wolf. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, April 2021.

The study: Researchers examined 21 studies of voucher and voucher-like programs in the U.S., India and Colombia to evaluate how well students who use vouchers performed on standardized tests. This paper is the first meta-analysis of evidence collected from randomized, controlled trials of voucher programs conducted in multiple countries, the researchers write.

The 21 studies, dated from 1998 to 2018, represent a total of 11 voucher programs serving low-income students in these locations: Toledo, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Washington D.C.; the state of Louisiana; Delhi, India; Andhra Pradesh, India; and Bogota, Colombia.

The findings: When researchers focused on the most recent year of data provided by each study, they found that the 11 voucher programs, overall, had a “generally modest positive” effect on test scores in those locations. Voucher programs in India and Colombia had a larger impact than programs in the U.S. “The results indicate that voucher programs tend to moderately increase test scores, particularly in developing countries with a large private-public school quality gap,” the researchers write.

In the authors’ words: “Many of the programs included here are still relatively small scale,” they write. “More experimental work should take place on larger programs in order to understand whether or not the achievement benefits of private school vouchers replicate at scale.”

School Vouchers: A Survey of the Economics Literature
Dennis Epple, Richard E. Romano and Miguel Urquiola. Journal of Economic Literature, June 2017.

The study: Researchers examine more than two decades of economic research on private school vouchers in the U.S., Canada, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Holland, India, New Zealand and Sweden to answer five key questions, including “What effects do vouchers have on the students who use them?” The papers they analyzed span from 1990 to 2014.

The findings: The researchers determined that the answers to their questions vary depending on “the characteristics of the program analyzed and the context into which it is introduced.” When they looked specifically at how vouchers affect the academic achievement of U.S. students who use them, they discovered that the evidence, overall, “finds not very robust effects on test scores” and that the effects are “most frequently nonexistent.”

The researchers note, however, that three studies of private school choice programs in Louisiana and Ohio, published in 2015 and 2016, show large declines in test scores. They point out that the data does indicate an uptick in high school graduation rates among voucher users in the U.S., and Black students in particular.

In the authors’ words: “Vouchers have been neither the rousing success imagined by proponents nor the abject failure predicted by opponents,” they write. “While the evidence does not make a case for wholesale adoption of vouchers, recent theoretical and empirical results suggest a need for — and reasons for cautious optimism about — potential gains from improving voucher design.”

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