In the United States a school voucher is a subsidy that grants limited purchasing power to a student to choose among a restricted set of private schools. In the traditional school funding configuration, public funds for public schools flow from national and state governments and local communities, directly to school districts. A family wishing to send its child to a private school must do so with its own funds. A large-scale voucher plan would change that arrangement: in a voucher plan, families that wish to enroll their children in private school could have the tuition partially or completely covered by tax-levied dollars.
The idea of school vouchers is as old as the American Revolution. The American revolutionary Thomas Paine advocated a voucher system because he felt that compulsory education violated individual conscience. He was following the perspective of John Stuart Mill, who believed that state-sponsored education was a contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another. During the 1960s, educational activists such as Ted Sizer advocated vouchers to enable urban children to escape their local public schools.
In the 1990s, the voucher movement gained new momentum, which led to voucher pilot sites in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida. In 2001, the Rand Corporation published a research report by Brian Gill, Michael Timpane, and Dominic I. Brewer evaluating the effects of choice on several outcomes: student achievement, parental satisfaction, access, integration, and civic socialization. The report determined that small, experimental, privately funded vouchers may show modest benefits after a year or two for African-American students but that there is no evidence of benefit for children of other racial groups. Parental satisfaction is high among choice parents, although the number of families involved in the study was quite small.
Some voucher programs targeted specifically at low-income, low-achieving minority students have provided access for some students. In general, however, most choice programs have not extended access opportunities to the poor, and in fact voucher-like tuition tax benefits favor middle-and upper-income families. Likewise in highly segregated communities voucher programs may modestly increase racial integration, but evidence from abroad suggests that most choice programs result in increasing the degree of educational stratification, not decreasing it. In terms of civic socialization, there is little distinction to be made between private and public schools.
To a large degree, the debate over school vouchers has less to do with empirical outcomes than with deep-seated beliefs about liberty, community, and the role of individual preference in creating a good society. The intensity and tone of the debate depends in great part upon the more general spirit of the times; that is, to the degree that market competition is seen as the way to a productive and just society, vouchers will appeal to a substantial minority of citizens. To the degree that government is seen as the protector of democracy, vouchers will appeal to a smaller group of citizens, many of whom resist government schooling as a matter of principal. Debate over vouchers also involves questions about separation between church and state, since religious schools could become voucher recipients. At the start of the twenty-first century, the debate over school vouchers was refueled by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that lowered the legal wall between church and state.
Gill, Brian, Michael Timpane, and Dominic I. Brewer. 2001. Rhetoric Versus Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know about Vouchers and Charter Schools. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Education.
Greene, Jay D., Paul E. Peterson, and Jiangtao Du. 1996. "Effectiveness of School Choice: The Milwaukee Experiment." John F. Kennedy School of Government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
Hanus, Jerome J., and Peter W. Cookson Jr. 1996. Choosing Schools: Vouchers and American Education. Washington, DC: American University Press.
Peterson, Paul E. 2001. "Choice in American Education." In A Primer on America's Schools, ed. Terry M. Moe. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.
Rouse, Cecelia E. 1997. "Schools and Student Achievement: More Evidence from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program." Working Paper No. 396, Industrial Relations Section. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Steuerle, C. Eugene. 1999. "Common Issues for Voucher Programs." In Vouchers and the Provision of Public Services, ed. C. Eugene Steuerle et al. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Witte, John F. 1996. "Who Benefits from the Milwaukee Choice Program?" In Who Chooses? Who Loses? Culture, Institutions, and the Unequal Effects of School Choice, ed. Bruce Fuller et al. New York: Teachers College Press.
PETER W. COOKSON JR.