School Choice & Charters

Is ‘Voucher’ a Bad Word? What the Public Thinks About School Choice

By Arianna Prothero — August 21, 2018 3 min read
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School choice advocates sometimes shun the word “voucher” when describing policies that allow students to use taxpayer dollars to pay for private school tuition because they fear the word has become too politicized.

And that was before decidedly pro-voucher Donald Trump was elected president and he appointed the ardently pro-voucher Betsy DeVos to be his education secretary.

But now that the Trump administration has embraced school choice and placed vouchers at the center of national education debates, Education Next, a journal published by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, wanted to see if the term “voucher” had become a dirty word.

The answer is yes and no, and hinges on what type of students vouchers are intended for, according to EdNext’s 2018 poll.

Has Voucher Become a Bad Word?

In past surveys, EdNext has asked participants whether they supported the idea of government giving either all families or just low-income families greater choice by subsidizing private school tuition with public funds. This year, EdNext put four questions—two that did not use the word voucher and two that did—to a nationally representative sample.

The two questions that did not use the word voucher were identical to those EdNext had asked its survey respondents in 2017. Support for universal vouchers, or vouchers for all families—described as “wider choice” by pollsters in their questions—rose by 9 percentage points from last year from 45 percent to 54 percent. But that’s only when the word voucher wasn’t used.

Interestingly, when pollsters replaced the words “wider choice” with the term “voucher,” support for universal vouchers dropped by 10 percentage points.

When pollsters asked participants about vouchers specifically for students who are poor, the numbers looked quite different.

Forty-three percent of survey participants said they favor vouchers for low-income students, the same level of support for income-specific vouchers as last year’s poll showed. And the level of support didn’t really rise or fall when pollsters avoided the term vouchers and instead described the policy as publicly subsidizing private school tuition strictly for low-income families.

“As it turns out, the toxicity of the v-word, as vouchers are sometimes termed, depends on context,” write the researchers in the survey’s corresponding report. “No significant change in opinion is detected when it is inserted into the question that refers to ‘low-income’ families.”

How Popular Are Charter Schools?

EdNext also tested the toxicity of the word “charter” but found that removing it from the description of charter schools actually caused approval to drop by 6 percentage points among all survey participants, and 10 percentage points among Republicans.

The pollsters also tacked the word “public” onto charter school, as some advocates have taken to doing, to see if that changed people’s perceptions of the policy.

It didn’t.

Although support for charter schools in general has increased since last year, charter schools have not recovered from the whopping, 13-percentage-point drop in approval they suffered between 2016 and 2017. Forty-four percent of participants said they approved of charter schools, up 5 percentage points from last year. Most of that came from rising support among Republicans, 57 percent of whom now favor charters.

“As a result,” the report’s authors write, “the charter debate has become increasingly polarized across party lines, with only 36 [percent] of Democrats now supporting their formation.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.