School vouchers are government-funded tuition certificates that parents can use to fund their children’s attendance at private educational institutions. Considerable debate surrounds the use of public funds for education in private institutions. A key issue of debate involves the effectiveness of school voucher programs for students, primarily students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Another major debate issue is whether the use of public funds for religious private institutions violates the principle of separation of church and state.
Economist Milton Friedman is credited as one of the key originators of the concept of school vouchers. The idea emerged from negative views on governmental intervention in the realm of education and the desire to empower people who use the education system. Friedman believed that a free market approach, which allowed competition from private markets, would increase both school quality and citizens’ access to quality schooling. While Friedman proposed the school voucher system in the 1950s, general satisfaction with the education system stifled advancement of his idea. Increasing dissatisfaction with public education during recent decades, however, influenced the creation of such programs. While the discourse surrounding school vouchers is plentiful, the number of voucher programs is relatively small, particularly when compared to other reform programs such as charter schools and homeschooling. Most current U.S. voucher programs target poor or disadvantaged families.
General support for school vouchers rests on principles of choice and free market forces that create competition between private and public school institutions to improve student outcomes and empower disadvantaged families. One of the principal claims of supporters is that private education provides superior educational outcomes for students in the form of increased grade point averages, graduation rates, and standardized test scores. These improved outcomes therefore greatly benefit disadvantaged families as they gain wider access to educational opportunities.
Voucher supporters are in general agreement about the failure of the current public education system, as illustrated by the introduction of the 2006 America’s Opportunity Scholarship for Kids legislation to Congress. This legislation, which ultimately did not pass, sought to allow children in schools consistently failing to meet requirements to receive funds toward private education. Many voucher supporters believe problems with the current public school system stem from governmental and bureaucratic conflicts that ultimately limit the ability of teachers and administrators to create proficient programs. Supporters feel that the current educational system has fundamental flaws not likely to be changed through traditional reform programs. They feel that the only way any significant positive change of the education system will occur is through a radical shift in both thinking and organization.
For proponents, school vouchers represent the concepts of choice and freedom for families, allowing parents to pick schools that will potentially provide better opportunities and outcomes for their children. Parents can thus choose a school with sufficient resources, a strong organizational structure, engaged teachers, and smaller class sizes. In addition, supporters claim that vouchers empower parents to choose schools that more closely match their own values. These values may include the choice of a religious school that mirrors their moral values or, say, a school that emphasizes fine arts education. Ultimately supporters argue that the freedom to choose will greatly empower disadvantaged populations by allowing them to leave underperforming schools. Proponents believe that a school voucher system will equalize the playing field for families that do not have access to private education.
Choice not only provides parents with a better opportunity to meet their children’s needs; supporters claim that the free market system will also benefit the entire education system. Free market competition will force public schools to enact change in order to compete with private schools for funding. Supporters argue that the absence of this competition suppresses innovation in public schools and ultimately leads to a lack of significant reform.
Overall, opponents of school vouchers question whether the free market approach will create greater outcomes for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. They challenge the claim that private schools will increase student outcomes, noting that research is inconclusive regarding the relationship between private schools and academic outcomes. Additionally, opponents reject claims that the public school system is in a ruinous state requiring radical change and that the focus should be on making the public system better, not giving up on the schools or systems having problems. Furthermore, diverting funds away from public schools that desperately need them to private schools through a voucher program will cause further deterioration of public school systems.
Opponents also strongly challenge the assertion that voucher programs will help empower families who are most negatively affected by shortcomings in the educational system. They feel a voucher system will further hurt the disadvantaged by greatly increasing stratification and segregation that already exist in schools. Families that have greater access to resources, such as information about programs and transportation to schools, will benefit more than families that lack these resources. Families with greater resources will be more likely to seek out and participate in voucher programs, and this will reinforce inequality and stratification rather than empower the disadvantaged.
Opponents also point out that some voucher programs do not provide enough money to completely cover the tuition of the private schools. If families must cover the difference in cost, this may once again reinforce stratification by leaving disadvantaged families unable to equally benefit from voucher programs. Another factor that might lead to the reinforcement of stratification is the ability of private institutions to turn away student applicants. If private schools can eliminate the applications of troubled students, these students must attend public schools. Opponents argue that this will lead to private schools getting the “cream of the crop,” leaving public schools to deal with the troubled students. Combined with earlier arguments of the harmfulness of the diversion of funds, critics believe this would leave public schools lacking resources and catering to a population of students that need the most assistance. Students who would benefit most from claims of empowerment may be left behind in public institutions due to their lack of social capital, inability to make up tuition differences, and denied applications.
Last, the issue of the public funding of private schools with religious affiliations is a common concern in the debate over school vouchers. Some see such usage of funds as a violation of the principle of separation of church and state. Further, opponents fear that students may be excluded from certain opportunities because of a lack of religious agreement between the institution and the family. Some argue that empowering students requires equal access for all students to attend all participating institutions.
Beyond public and political discourse, issues regarding school voucher programs have played out in the judicial system. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Zelman v. Simmons regarding Ohio’s Pilot Project Scholarship Program. The challenge to this voucher program rested on the argument that the use of public funds to support private religious school organizations violated the establishment clause in the Constitution against laws supporting religion. The court ruled 5-4 that the program did not violate the establishment clause and was neutral in terms of religious and nonreligious schools, since the program gave parents freedom to select between numerous religious and nonreligious organizations. Furthermore, the religious institutions did not exclude participants based upon individual students’ religious beliefs. The dissenting opinion argued that, since 96.6 percent of the vouchers went to religious schools, it was tantamount to funding religious programs with public funds. In addition, the dissenting opinion believed that conflict between religious sects would be a likely by-product of using public funds to support religious programs.
Yet, other rulings on the state level are mixed about the use of public funds for religious educational programs. In the 2005 case of Bush v. Holmes, the Florida Supreme Court ruled against a voucher program on the grounds that it violated the Florida state constitution. The court ruled that the program rerouted public funds away from the public education system. In addition, the court stated that the voucher program undermined the integrity of the public system by using public funds for a competing system. The 2006 case of Anderson v. Town of Durham challenged a Maine program that funded only nonreligious private institutions. The Maine Supreme Court ruled that the program, which provided funding for students to attend private nonsectarian institutions in situations where no public high school was available, was not a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. However, the Maine court also ruled that families could not use public funds for private schools in other situations, thereby restricting free choice and free market access.
- Friedman, Milton and Rose Friedman. 1990. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. Orlando, FL: Harvest.
- Gill, Brian P., P. Michael Timpane, Karen E. Ross, and Dominic J. Brewer. 2007. Rhetoric Versus Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.
- Kahlenberg, Richard D., ed. 2003. Public School Choice vs. Private School Vouchers. New York: Century Foundation Press.
- Lowe, Robert, Robert Peterson, David Levine, and Rita Tenorio, eds. 1995. Rethinking Schools: An Agenda for Change. New York: New Press.
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