Despite controversial and mixed results, school voucher programs have ballooned in recent years. In many states, parents can use government-funded vouchers to pay tuition at participating private schools, including religious schools. In some cases, vouchers may be used to cover home-schooling expenses. In much of the U.S., however, vouchers are only available to disabled students or children whose family incomes fall below a certain threshold. For example, one program in urban Milwaukee targets poor, minority students.
School vouchers are among the various “school choice” options available to families, some of whom do not want to send their children to traditional public schools. Other school choice programs include charter schools and virtual schools.
The American Federation for Children Growth Fund (AFC), a group advocating for school choice, argued in 2016 that vouchers cost taxpayers, on average, just over $6,000 per child per year. By contrast, per-pupil spending in public schools exceeded $11,000, on average, in fiscal year 2014, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The number of children attending school on state-sponsored vouchers grew from 61,700 during the 2008-2009 academic year to over 153,000 by 2015-2016, according to a report from the AFC. That’s a 148 percent increase. (The federal government does not track enrollment in voucher programs.)
Milton Friedman — the American economist and Nobel laureate perhaps best known for vigorously championing free markets — called for school vouchers back in 1955, arguing that “competitive private enterprise is likely to be far more efficient in meeting consumer demands” for education than the government. He eventually started an advocacy organization, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which publishes an interactive map with details on different voucher programs nationwide. (The foundation, which became known as Ed Choice in 2016, lobbies state legislatures to implement school choice programs. Ed Choice lists on its website a number of the scholars whose research is mentioned below as members of its “Ed Choice Experts” “speakers bureau.”)
Today more than half of U.S. states offer some sort of school choice program; 15 states and the District of Columbia offer vouchers. Maine and Vermont have offered vouchers since the late 19th century to students living in rural areas, far from public schools. The first modern voucher program started in 1990, when Wisconsin targeted students from low-income families in Milwaukee. In 2001, Florida became the first state to offer vouchers to students with disabilities. In cases where spaces in private schools are too few, vouchers are often distributed by lottery.
Research on the academic impact of vouchers — often determined using test scores or high school graduation rates — is decidedly mixed; there is no scholarly consensus that they boost student achievement, though many researchers encourage further study and increased emphasis on how voucher programs are designed. Amid vigorous campaigning by advocacy groups for and against vouchers, the benefits are deeply contested.
Arguments and research overview
Teachers unions argue that vouchers siphon money from underfunded school districts and create a two-tiered education system. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) opposes vouchers, reasoning that they benefit a limited few. “Vouchers take critical resources away from our neighborhood public schools, the very schools that are attended by the vast majority of African American students. Furthermore, private and parochial schools are not required to observe federal nondiscrimination laws even if they receive federal funds through voucher programs,” the NAACP said in its 2015-2016 list of legislative priorities.
Others, such as the National Education Association, a three-million-strong group of educators, say that applying public funds to parochial school tuition blurs the line between church and state, violating the Constitution.
On the other hand, fiscal conservatives like vouchers because they save government funds. Competition, moreover, could be good for innovation, they argue. Though a sweeping 2015 review by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found little evidence that vouchers improve educational outcomes, it did declare that “competition induced by vouchers leads public schools to improve.”
“Vouchers have been neither the rousing success imagined by proponents nor the abject failure predicted by opponents,” say the authors of the NBER paper, which was led by Dennis Epple of Carnegie Mellon University. The programs show “no consistent, robust pattern.”
Amid such a heated debate, journalists should be mindful of who is presenting voucher research. Studies can be massaged to bolster the claims of one side or the other. Education policy researchers Christopher Lubienski and T. Jameson Brewer of the University of Illinois single out Ed Choice — the advocacy group founded by Milton Friedman — and warn that it over-emphasizes research that is not as strong as it suggests. Some of the findings that Ed Choice presents as bolstering the case for vouchers leave out caveats explicitly flagged by the authors themselves. “Advocacy based on this research is misguided and should be based on potentially stronger claims,” Lubienski and Brewer write in a 2016 study for the Peabody Journal of Education. “[T]he empirical results are relatively modest at best, and sometimes negative, not to mention incoherent and contested.”
Four impact studies
Joshua Cowen of the University of Kentucky and his colleagues tracked students in Milwaukee — the first city in the country to introduce its own voucher program — over five years. They found a relationship between voucher-receiving students and high school graduation, even if the students did not stay in the voucher program throughout high school: “They were also more likely […] to continue beyond the first year of college.”
However, the authors expressed concern that the private schools that receive the vouchers “implicitly or explicitly select the better students” — sometimes known as “cream skimming.” Private schools “can ‘counsel out’ or even expel students that public schools cannot.” At the time of the study, private schools were not required to publish test scores, allowing them to focus more on graduation and college preparation. The authors say that factor could skew results compared with public schools, where test preparation is prioritized.
In Washington D.C., Patrick J. Wolf of the University of Arkansas and colleagues looked at a program that targeted poor, minority communities. They found voucher students were 21 percent more likely to graduate high school, suggesting “that private schools provide students with an educational climate that encourages school completion either through the intervention and expectations of school faculty or by having similarly motivated and achieving peers.” They also discovered a positive impact on reading scores for students who stayed in the private schools for four years, but no change in math scores. Wolf and colleagues called the program “one of the most effective urban dropout prevention programs yet witnessed.”
By contrast, in Louisiana, Atila Abdulkadiroglu of Duke University and colleagues found that a voucher program there hurt its intended beneficiaries — poor students who are mostly black. Examining the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), they compared outcomes for lottery winners (those granted a voucher) and losers (those who stayed behind in public schools). Abdulkadiroglu and colleagues found the “vouchers reduce academic achievement” because students who used vouchers to attend Louisiana private schools earned significantly lower scores in math, reading ability, science and social studies after one year. Lower math scores increase the likelihood of a failing grade by 50 percent.
Abdulkadiroglu and colleagues surmise that LSP is flawed because it only pays for tuition at the cheapest, lowest-quality private schools, which, the authors observe, often happen to be Catholic. That the vouchers only provide access to the cheaper participating schools adds ammunition to arguments that they encourage a two-tiered education system for the haves and the have-nots.
Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution and Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University found that the privately sponsored New York School Choice Scholarships Foundation program saved taxpayers about 50 percent on public school tuition, but saw no impact on whether participating students went to college. The program focuses on elementary-school children from low-income families in New York City.
Race is an issue either directly addressed or intimated in much research on school vouchers.
A 2016 paper by Mark A. Gooden of the University of Texas at Austin and colleagues asks if school vouchers help raise education standards for poor, minority students, as is often the stated goal of these programs. As proponents’ arguments increasingly focus on racial equality, the authors argue that without race more directly discussed as a factor, “it will be difficult for such policies to generate better educational opportunities for black children or society as a whole.” Some voucher programs do not cover enough of the tuition to enable access to the best private schools. Those who cannot contribute the difference are often poor minority children: “We have found that there are some troubling realities that show that current voucher programs are inadequate for addressing the systemic policy issues and personal deprivations that poor children of color face in schools everyday.”
Anna Egalite of North Carolina State University and colleagues examine how the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) — the voucher program that Atila Abdulkadiroglu and his colleagues found was hurting student achievement — may help desegregate public schools. They suggest this program reduces the number of minority students in public schools with the poorest performance, while slightly increasing minority enrollment in the worst private schools. They conclude that the LSP has not harmed efforts to desegregate Louisiana’s schools and that it may even help.
Some researchers have looked at voucher programs abroad. In Pakistan, Claire Morgan and her colleagues at WestEd, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization, found a program that “resulted in girls being educated for less than it would have cost” the government to educate them. In Columbia, a program cost the state more, but it may ultimately contribute more to the overall economy. Both programs, Morgan and her colleagues wrote, “increased private school enrollment among the countries’ poorest income groups, thus probably improving equity” — and could be repeated elsewhere. The 2015 NBER paper by Dennis Epple and colleagues (discussed above) also looks at programs abroad.
In the areas of Vermont that lack public schools and offer families a voucher to send children to private schools, houses are worth about $24,000 more than houses in areas without voucher programs, Susanne Cannon and colleagues wrote in a 2015 paper for the Journal of Housing Research. “The clear implication of this study is that families perceive school vouchers as enhancing their quality of life, and they are willing to pay more for homes in jurisdictions that provide school vouchers,” the authors write. In some Vermont school districts, voucher-supported private schools are replacing public schools.
The U.S. Department of Education does not track voucher enrollment, but it does have a variety of education-related data on its National Center for Education Statistics website as well as a database of related research papers.
The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder produces peer-reviewed research to inform public debates about education policy, including school choice.
The National Conference on State Legislatures tracks legislation on school choice nationwide and offers information on programs similar to vouchers, such as scholarship tax credit programs and education savings grants.
Individual state departments of education offer reports about voucher programs in their areas. For example, Florida’s Office of K-12 School Choice has posted dozens of reports on the McKay Scholarship Program, which is open to disabled children, on its website.
The American Federation for Children Growth Fund (and its daughter organization, the Alliance for School Choice) advocates for vouchers. The federation publishes an annual breakdown of voucher enrollment in each state, calling every district as necessary to compile the list.
Public Schools First North Carolina offers a list of groups opposing school vouchers.
Resources like GuideStar and Foundation Directory (subscriptions are often available at libraries) can help journalists see when a non-profit group engages in government lobbying. Turn to “Schedule C: Political Campaign and Lobbying Activities” of the organization’s 990 tax filings, which are required of most non-profits. The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (now Ed Choice) spent $87,576 on direct lobbying in 2014, for example. The American Federation for Children tries to sway public opinion, but does not engage in direct lobbying, according to its 2014 tax filings.
Challenges to voucher programs
The controversy over voucher programs looks unlikely to disappear soon. In Texas, in 2015, legislators vetoed a $100 million plan that would have allowed up to 16,000 students to transfer from urban public schools to private or religious-based schools. For Education Next, Joshua Dunn of the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs wrote a short paper on what he calls the “shaky foundations” of state restrictions on voucher programs.
Abdulkadiroglu, Atila; Pathak, Parag A.; Walters, Christopher R. “School Vouchers and Student Achievement: Evidence from the Louisiana Scholarship Program,” NBER Working Paper, 2016. doi: 10.3386/w21839.
Cannon, Susanne E.; Danielsen, Bartley R.; Harrison, David M. “School Vouchers and Home Prices: Premiums in School Districts Lacking Public Schools,” Journal of Housing Research, 2015. doi: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.
Chingos, Matthew M.; Peterson, Paul E. “Experimentally Estimated Impacts of School Vouchers on College Enrollment and Degree Attainment,” Journal of Public Economics, 2014. doi: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.2014.11.013.
Cowen, Joshua M.; et al. “School Vouchers and Student Attainment: Evidence from a State-Mandated Study of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program,” Policy Studies Journal, 2013. doi: 10.1111/psj.12006.
Egalite, Anna J.; Wolf, Patrick J. “A Review of the Empirical Research on Private School Choice,” Peabody Journal of Education, 2016. doi: 10.1080/0161956X.2016.1207436.
Egalite, Anna J.; Mills, Jonathan N.; Wolf, Patrick J. “The Impact of Targeted School Vouchers on Racial Stratification in Louisiana Schools,” Education and Urban Society, 2016. doi: 10.1177/0013124516643760.
Epple, Dennis; Romano, Richard E.; Urquiola, Miguel. “School Vouchers: A Survey of the Economics Literature.” NBER Working Paper, 2015. doi: 10.3386/w21523.
Fleming, David J. “Similar Students, Difference Choices: Who Uses a School Voucher in an Otherwise Similar Population of Students?,” Education and Urban Society, 2015. doi: 10.1177/0013124513511268.
Gooden, Mark A.; Jabbar, Huriya; Torres, Mario S. Jr. “Race and School Vouchers: Legal, Historical and Political Contexts,” Peabody Journal of Education, 2016. doi: 10.1080/0161956X.
Lubienski, Christopher; Brewer, T. Jameson. “An Analysis of Voucher Advocacy: Taking a Closer Look at the Uses and Limitations of ‘Gold Standard’ Research,” Peabody Journal of Education, 2016. doi: 10.1080/0161956X.2016.1207438.
Morgan, Claire; et al. “The Impact of School Vouchers in Developing Countries: A Systematic Review,” International Journal of Educational Research, 2015. doi: 10.1016/j.ijer.2015.04.010.
Wolf, Patrick J.; et al. “School Vouchers and Student Outcomes: Experimental Evidence from Washington, DC,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 2013. doi: 10.1002/pam.21691.
Keywords: school vouchers, school choice, education policy, religious schools, private schools, parochial, opportunity scholarship, McKay scholarship, choice scholarship, education reform