This version was published in 2004. An updated version is available from 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. The public seems to be roughly evenly divided between these two camps—a recent poll shows that 42 percent of adults favor voucher initiatives while 56 percent oppose them (Rose & Gallup, 2003).
Not surprisingly, much of the research around vouchers is highly charged and often contradictory. A few studies tie student participation in voucher programs to improved academic achievement. Research has also suggested that parents of students in voucher programs are much more satisfied with every aspect of their choice school than parents of students who did not have the option of choosing a school (Peterson, 2000; Greene, Howell, and Peterson, 1999). Supporters also contend that voucher programs benefit the public education system as a whole since the establishment of market-like competition between schools compels them all to improve (Tooley, 2000).
Voucher opponents claim, however, that research connecting voucher programs to gains in student achievement is 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 non-choice students (Greene, Howell, & Peterson, 1999; Greene, Peterson, & Du, 1996).
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, such as the Anti-Defamation League, believe vouchers have transformed learning from a public good available to everyone to a commodity, or something available for purchase. They also contend that introducing competition to the public education system will hurt, not help, students (Cookson, 1994).
Critics also argue that vouchers would 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 but keep the rest in a public system with depleted resources (Anti-Defamation League, 2001).
In addition to conflicting research findings and split public opinion, the voucher issue has been further complicated by legal problems. 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 in a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held 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 also went on to rule 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. Now, government-supported voucher programs have popped up in Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Maine, and Vermont. 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 in the fall of 2002 that 37 states had such amendments in their state constitutions.
Legal experts Louis R. Cohen and C. Boyden Gray (2002) believe that voucher opponents will turn to these “once-obscure” statutory or constitutional provisions to block the spread of the voucher movement. Such constitutional hang-ups recently forced Colorado to halt its plans to implement a statewide voucher program. Months after receiving the go-ahead from the state legislature and the governor, Colorado’s voucher law was ruled unconstitutional since it contradicted language in the state constitution.
The legal debate over whether vouchers breach the separation of church and state has moved into the post-secondary realm. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the case of Locke v. Davey in which, Davey, a college student, alleged that Washington state’s policy of not offering college scholarships to theology students violates the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. In February 2004, the Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Washington, declaring the state had the right to deny publicly funded scholarship money to the student. The ruling represented a departure from past Court decisions which allowed public money to support students in religious schools. Had the Court sided with Davey, experts say, it would have been easier to use vouchers in many states that currently have Blaine amendments.