President Trump is rekindling debate about whether school vouchers are a good strategy to improve the education of low income students. As a candidate, he said that he favored creating a $20 billion federal "block grant" to support school choice. Part of the money would go toward "vouchers" that would help low-income families pay tuition at private schools, including religious schools.
California's voters have soundly rejected school voucher proposals twice, once in 1993 and again in 2000. With billions potentially at stake, now seems a good time to review the voucher concept. What are they? Do they work? Are there better options? If you have limited time, here's the spoiler: Yes, there are better options than vouchers to help low income students. Read on for details.
Vouchers are government-funded coupons good toward payment of tuition at a private school, usually including religious schools. If you trace the origin of the word “vouch” to the 1690s, a voucher was a “receipt for a business transaction.”
Starting in the 1950s, economist Milton Friedman argued that market forces could help create better and more efficient schools. Given a choice, he argued, parents would enroll their children in the school that best suits them -- presumably the best school. As a mechanism for putting this competition into practice, he suggested that students be provided vouchers toward payment for their education at any school, including private schools. The idea found favor with free market proponents, religious school leaders and think tanks.
Vouchers also found favor with segregationists. The timing of Friedman's proposal coincided with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which required desegregation of public schools. The desegregation order triggered a wave of white flight to private schools, which were not subject to the ruling. To thwart the law, some southern states began issuing tax-funded tuition vouchers, which were accepted at private segregated schools.
Although there is lively popular support for the general idea of school choice, voucher programs are a very minor mechanism for providing it. Most private school students attend a school affiliated with a religion. Most state constitutions, including California's, prohibit the use of taxpayers' money to support religious-affiliated schools. (The extent of this prohibition is scheduled to be reviewed by the US Supreme Court in 2017 in Trinity Lutheran v. Pauley.)
Voucher programs only exist in fifteen US States and Washington, D.C. Most of these programs are quite small.
Instead of vouchers, most states and districts have opted to deliver school choice through non-sectarian public charter schools, magnet schools, and district-wide open enrollment lotteries. About 10% of students in California attend a charter school, and in this state there are significantly more students in charter schools than in private schools.
Polls show that public charter schools enjoy broad public support. There is considerably less public support for school vouchers, and significant opposition to them.
Setting all of that aside, is there evidence that voucher programs deliver stronger educational outcomes for students than regular schools or charter schools?
The short answer is no. There have been many studies of voucher programs, most of them sponsored by religious orders or other pro-voucher organizations with a clear bias. Early small-scale experimental programs seemed to suggest almost miraculous results, but those findings have not survived broader examination.
Sometimes. A study by the Brookings Institute, On the Negative Effects on Vouchers, found that students in voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana scored lower on reading and math tests than similar students who remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. Studies in Ohio also indicate negative effects.
There seems little point in investing scarce resources and attention in a divisive strategy of dubious constitutionality without attractive evidence that it works.
Evidence is piling up that in schools we get what we pay for. A 2016 study by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research examined ten years of data and found that sustained increases in spending in low-income school districts were associated with increased student achievement. How much improvement? According to the study, "The implied effect of school resources on educational achievement is large."
A 2016 international PISA study points to strategies that have been shown to improve educational outcomes:
Vouchers should not be high on the list of strategies for systemic educational improvement. If a voucher movement leads to less money for public schools, it could do real harm.
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