Updated Aug. 11, 2011
Few topics stir up as much debate in the education community as the concept of providing government-funded aid—or vouchers—to parents to send their children to private schools.
The subject of high-profile lawsuits and heated political rhetoric, vouchers tend to split people into two camps—those who see them as a valuable tool for helping needy children escape failing public schools and those who charge that vouchers strip funds from public schools without offering real opportunity to poor children.
Not surprisingly, much of the research around vouchers is highly charged and often contradictory. Some studies have tied student participation in voucher programs to improved academic achievement, but others have not found that to be true.
Supporters of vouchers suggest that parents of students in voucher programs are much more satisfied with their school choice than parents of students who did not have the option of choosing a school. Proponents also contend that voucher programs benefit the public education system as a whole, arguing that the establishment of market-like competitions among schools compels all schools to work harder to improve. A 2010 study by David N. Figlio and Cassandra M.D. Hart at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research suggested that Florida’s public schools improved their operations because of competition from nearby private schools that was brought on by a state voucher program.
Voucher opponents, however, say that any claims that voucher programs boost gains in student achievement are unfounded. They point, specifically, to data collected by Harvard University researchers on the Milwaukee and Cleveland school districts. Although the data indicated a jump in the test scores of students who participated in voucher programs, later studies by Kim Metcalf et al. (1998) of the Indiana Center for Evaluation and John Witte (1996) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that, in the same two districts, choice students performed no better on tests than nonchoice students (Greene, Howell, & Peterson, 1999; Greene, Peterson, & Du, 1996).
A later study of the Milwaukee program, released in 2010 by University of Arkansas at Fayetteville researchers Jay Greene and Patrick Wolf, showed that in a one-year snapshot of the 2006-07 school year, students’ state test scores were about the same on average in Milwaukee regardless of whether they used vouchers or attended public schools.
Some opponents also raise big-picture concerns about vouchers, arguing that they jeopardize the long-standing ideal of offering every child equal access to high-quality public schooling. Critics also argue that vouchers siphon money away from public schools, leaving a large underclass of students—including many of those with special education requirements—trapped in a system without enough resources to meet their needs. At best, they say, vouchers are a “lifeboat” solution that can help a few lucky children from motivated families but keep the rest in a public system with depleted resources.
In addition to conflicting research findings, the voucher issue has been further complicated by legal questions. Are vouchers creating unconstitutional entanglements between church and state since parents have used them to send their children to private religious schools? The question was addressed in June 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state-enacted voucher program in Cleveland did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on government establishment of religion. The court found that the program “is entirely neutral with respect to religion” since it permitted the “participation of all schools within the district, religious or nonreligious” (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 2002). It concluded that the government provision of funds to religious schools through the rubric of a voucher program did not violate standards on church-state separation.
The decision—claimed as a major victory by voucher advocates—has clearly changed the landscape of the debate. After the ruling, government-supported voucher programs popped up in the District of Columbia, Florida, Maine, Ohio, and Vermont.
Voucher advocates in 2011 were encouraged by congressional support for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, a federally financed initiative in the District of Columbia providing tuition vouchers of up to $7,500. The program, first funded in 2004, has awarded scholarships to more than 1,900 students so far. After being set for phase-out because of Democratic opposition, it was revived in the fiscal 2011 budget deal.
Also, Republicans elected to state legislatures in 2010 pushed through new programs for vouchers and tax credits to help students go to private schools. In 2011, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, a Republican signed into law a statewide voucher program that moves beyond serving only the poorest of the poor and could become one of the largest voucher programs in the country. The new law, which was challenged in court, says the program could serve only 7,500 students its first year and 15,000 its second year, but a cap on the number of students served, who must come from families making no more than 150 percent of the poverty level, would be lifted after that.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also a Republican, has proposed that Milwaukee’s voucher program, which now serves 22,000 low-income students, be expanded to include students of higher-income families. Some school-choice advocates also want to see it expanded to other cities.
And Florida’s corporate-tax-credit program, under which corporations can receive a tax credit for providing scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools, paid for 28,000 such scholarships since being expanded in the 2010-11 school year to include higher-income students.
But whether the voucher movement will continue to expand is uncertain and will largely depend on state constitutions. Some states have constitutional language on the books that explicitly bars government aid to religious institutions, often called “Blaine amendments.” These clauses effectively outlaw private school choice. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm that supports school choice, reported that, as of summer 2011, 37 states had such amendments in their state constitutions.
Voucher supporters have recently shifted their efforts from praising the achievement of voucher students to focusing on school choice as being valuable in itself, according to a 2011 report by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank. Researchers for the report concluded that vouchers have “no clear positive impact” on student achievement and mixed results overall. The researchers observed that voucher supporters are stressing what they see as other benefits of vouchers, such as expanded options for parents to select schools, higher parental satisfaction, and higher graduation rates.