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October 1, 1998

Research Link / School Vouchers: Much Debate, Little Research

The idea behind school vouchers is not new: In the 1950s, economist Milton Friedman argued that free-market competition among public schools would necessarily cause school quality to rise (Saks, 1997). In such a system, parents would receive vouchers that they could apply to their children's tuition at the school of their choice.
Voucher systems can take many forms. For example, they might be limited to students living in poverty or be offered to all students. They might be applied only to public schools within a single district or be applied to any public, private, or religiously affiliated school. Regardless of the exact form a voucher system would take, the idea of vouchers has provoked an increasingly strident debate between those who feel vouchers offer the freedom of choice demanded by a democratic society and those who contend that such a system would further segregate the nation along socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic lines.
Voucher proponents believe that market competition will force schools to improve because those that do not will lose their students and eventually close their doors. Walthers (1995) argues that such competition will elevate the professional status of teaching, improve student achievement, and win the support of the tax-paying public. He contends that teacher associations that oppose vouchers on the grounds of student welfare are more driven by "self-serving political motives" than by concern for the students.
Hill (1996) concludes that vouchers create complex but beneficial relationships among students, parents, and teachers. He points to the example of a privately funded program that offers low-income minority students scholarships to New York City Catholic high schools. Parents forge trusting relationships with the school because they selected it as the best alternative for their child. This in turn gives the school "leverage" over the students because the students recognize their parents' emotional investment in the school.
Moreover, Hill believes that teachers in schools based on choice will have vested interests in adhering closely to the school's mission and in taking responsibility for how well they help students achieve their goals. He contrasts this with the "I taught them, but they didn't learn it" attitude that he feels compulsory-attendance schools can foster in teachers by neither rewarding diligence nor punishing negligence.

The Case of Chile

Although vouchers were conceived as a way to reduce opportunity gaps, many feel they exacerbate the problem. The American Federation of Teachers (1995) notes that with a voucher system, the private schools—not the parents—do the choosing through admissions decisions. This creates the fear that private schools could select the best students, thereby depleting weaker schools of their strongest students.
Carnoy (1995) cites evidence from Chile, which has operated under a voucher plan since 1980, to support the conclusion that voucher systems widen gaps. He notes that since the implementation of the plan, federal financial support for public education has fallen substantially. Further, in 1990, nearly three quarters of the families in the lower 40 percent of the Chilean income distribution sent their children to public schools, as opposed to just one quarter of the families in the top 20 percent income bracket. His conclusion? Because of the voucher system, fewer public resources went to students. The rich met this decline by spending what it took in addition to the vouchers to send their children to private schools, but the poor were unable to do so and instead kept their children in public schools with reduced funding.
Economics also enter the debate. Voucher opponents contend that applying market theory to educational institutions does not make sense because education should be driven by the need to serve the public good, not the need to earn profits (Hawley, 1995; Lewis, 1995). Hawley estimates the cost of extending vouchers to current private and public school students at more than $25 billion.
Moreover, the American Federation of Teachers (1995) claims that most voucher proposals range from only $1,000 to $3,500 a student. The Federation notes that because the average cost of a private secondary school in 1990–91 was $9,625, vouchers would not guarantee parents a choice.
Nonetheless, the business community appears to support vouchers. In a survey of chamber of commerce executives and school board presidents, DeSpain and Livingston (1996) found that 80 percent of the executives thought vouchers were a good idea. Only 32 percent of school board presidents agreed.

Inconclusive Data

To date, legal challenges have limited the number of voucher systems in operation. Although systems that give vouchers directly to students—and not to religiously affiliated schools—have tended to survive federal First Amendment challenges, they have frequently lost challenges based on state laws (Kemerer & King, 1995).
Given that relatively few voucher systems have been enacted, the student achievement data on the effects of vouchers are not yet conclusive. Saks (1997) describes the debate over the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, in operation since 1990. Two separate teams of researchers have examined the results of the program, with widely differing conclusions about its impact on student achievement. Thus voucher proponents have pointed to the Milwaukee program to bolster their claims; opponents have cited the same program to prove that vouchers do not work. With this much disagreement over a single voucher system, generalizable conclusions about the effects of vouchers on student achievement will not come without more study and debate.
Perhaps the greatest reason vouchers have prompted such emotions is that the issues involve deep-rooted philosophical arguments, such as the separation of church and state, the role of government in education, and equality of opportunity. Should education be viewed as a private, consumable good or as something intended for the larger public good? How we answer this question may determine the extent to which our society embraces school choice through vouchers and similar alternatives.

American Federation of Teachers. (1995). Fact sheet on vouchers. Argument and evidence. American Educator, 19(3), 28, 31–33.

Carnoy, M. (1995, July 12). Is school privatization the answer? The experiences of other countries suggest not. Education Week, 14(39), 52, 40.

DeSpain, B. C., & Livingston, M. (1996). Roads to reform. The American School Board Journal, 183(7), 17–20.

Hawley, W. D. (1995). The false premises and false promises of the movement to privatize public education. Teachers College Record, 96(4), 735–742.

Hill, P. T. (1996). The educational consequences of choice. Phi Delta Kappan, 77(10), 671–675.

Kemerer, F. R., & King, K. L. (1995). Are school vouchers constitutional? Phi Delta Kappan, 77(4), 307–311.

Lewis, J. F. (1995). Saying no to vouchers: What is the price of democracy? NASSP Bulletin, 79(572), 41–51.

Saks, J. B. (1997). The voucher debate: Should public money follow kids to private schools? The American School Board Journal, 184(3), 24–28.

Walthers, K. (1995). Saying yes to vouchers: Perception, choice, and the educational response. NASSP Bulletin, 79(572), 52–61.

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