This Just In: Vouchers Work

Monday, July 30, 2001

School Choice

School voucher programs have, with public and private funds, been established in many cities and states. In just 10 years the number of students involved has climbed from zero to more than 60,000. During the 1999–2000 school year, nearly 50,000 students participated in 68 privately funded voucher programs and at least another 12,000 in three publicly funded ones.

Publicly Funded Voucher Programs

The three publicly funded voucher programs are in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and the state of Florida. In Cleveland, students began matriculating in private schools in the fall of 1996; in the fall of 1999 nearly 4,000 were participating. In 1999 students received a scholarship of up to $2,250, substantially less than the amount spent per student by Cleveland public schools.

The Milwaukee program, established in 1990, originally allowed students to attend schools without a religious affiliation. Only a few hundred students participated in the program in its first year. In the 1998–99 school year, the program, after overcoming constitutional objections, was expanded to include religious schools, and the number of participating students in 2000 increased to approximately 12,000. In that year participating students received a scholarship or voucher of up to nearly $5,000.

A fairly small number of students became eligible for participation in the Florida program for the first time in the fall of 1999, when the legislature said that students attending "failing" schools could apply for vouchers. In 1999 participating students could receive a scholarship or voucher of up to $3,389. Initially, only five schools met the legislative definition of failure, but many more were expected to fall within this category in subsequent years. However, no additional students became eligible in 2000 because the concept of failing was redefined and the performances on statewide tests of students in potentially failing schools improved.

All three publicly funded programs are designed so that students are selected by means of a lottery if the number of applicants exceeds the number of school spaces available.

Privately Funded Voucher Programs

Privately funded voucher programs operate in many cities. In 1999 the Children’s Scholarship Fund greatly expanded the size and range of these programs by providing 40,000 vouchers to students from low-income families nationwide.

These privately funded voucher programs differ from traditional scholarship programs in two important ways. First, the offer of the voucher is not conditioned on student performance. If more applications are received than can be funded by resources available to the private foundation sponsoring the program, the vouchers are distributed either by a lottery or on a first-come, first-served basis. Second, the scholarship is not tied to a particular school or religious denomination. Instead, the family may choose among a wide variety of participating secular or parochial schools with any one of a multiplicity of religious affiliations.

The privately funded voucher programs that have been studied by independent research teams are located in Dayton, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; the Edgewood school district in San Antonio, Texas; Indianapolis; New York City; and Washington, D.C.

What Happens When Vouchers Are Introduced?

A series of studies provide us with valuable information about the kinds of students and families who participate in voucher programs; the reasons families select a particular school when offered a voucher; the effects of vouchers on student learning; the school climate at voucher schools; and the impact of vouchers on homework, school-home communications, student academic performance, and parental satisfaction.

Characteristics of Voucher Recipients. Critics say that voucher programs will skim or "cherry pick" the public schools, attracting the participation of the most talented students and the higher-income, better-educated families. As a consequence, public schools will be left to educate an increasingly difficult population without the support of informed, engaged parents. Defenders of vouchers have replied that families have little incentive to move their child from one school to another if the child is already doing well in school.

In general, little evidence exists that voucher programs either skim the best and brightest students from public schools or attract only the lowest-performing students. On the contrary, voucher recipients resemble a cross section of public school students, though they may come from somewhat better educated families.

In the Edgewood school district in San Antonio, vouchers were offered to all low-income residents. Those who accepted the vouchers had math scores that, when they entered private school, were similar to those of other Edgewood public school students. Reading scores were only modestly higher. Voucher students were no more likely to have been in programs for gifted students, though they were less likely to have been in special education. Household income was similar, as was the percentage of families with two parents in the household. Mothers of voucher recipients had, on average, an additional year of education.

In Cleveland, the parents of students with vouchers were of lower income and the mothers more likely to be African American than a random sample of public school parents. Mothers had less than a year’s worth of additional education beyond that of the public school mothers and were not significantly more likely to be employed full time.

For those who believe that consumer satisfaction is the best measure of school quality—just as it is the best measure of other products—vouchers are a clear success.

The students themselves were not the "best and the brightest." On the contrary, students with vouchers were less likely to have been in a program for gifted or talented students than were children remaining in public schools. However, students with vouchers were less likely to have a learning disability.

Reasons for Accepting a Voucher and Attending Private School. Questions have been raised about the bases for the choices made by voucher participants. In the words of one group of critics, "when parents do select another school, academic concerns are not central to the decision." To determine what was paramount in the minds of voucher participants, parents in the Edgewood school district in San Antonio were asked to give the single most important reason for their choice of private school. Nearly 60 percent of parents accepting vouchers said "academic quality," "teacher quality," or "what was taught in class" was the single most important reason. Only 15 percent listed the religious affiliation of the school. In New York City, parents who received vouchers were asked which considerations were very important in their choice of a school. The six reasons they mentioned most frequently were teacher quality, what is taught in class, safety, school discipline, school quality, and class size. Religious instruction was seventh on the list, convenient location was ninth, and the sports program and a school where a child’s friend was attending were tied at the bottom of the list.

Reasons for Not Using a Voucher. When parents were asked about their reasons for not making use of a voucher, they provided a wide range of explanations. Most parents said that they found a school they wanted their child to attend. Only a tiny percentage of those who did not find the school of their choice said that it was because they were not a member of the religious group with which the school is affiliated.

In New York City, for example, 72 percent of the families who were offered a voucher said they were able to attend a school the family preferred. Families could give multiple reasons for not finding the school of their choice. The reason most frequently offered (by 15 percent of the parents) was the cost of the school (the privately funded voucher in New York was only $1,400, about half the tuition charged by most private schools).

Test Scores. Early test score studies were not carefully designed to yield precise estimates, but according to test score results from four recently conducted randomized experiments in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Dayton, Ohio; and Charlotte, North Carolina, African American students from low-income families who switch from a public to a private school do considerably better after two years than students who do not. However, after two years students from other ethnic backgrounds seem to learn as much but no more in private schools than their public school counterparts.

High School Completion and College Attendance. It is too early to know what impact vouchers will have on high school completion rates and college attendance. However, information on the effects of attendance at a Catholic high school are contained in a recent University of Chicago analysis of the Department of Education’s National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a survey of more than 12,000 young people. Students from all racial and ethnic groups are more likely to go to college after attending a Catholic school, but the effects are the greatest for urban minorities. The probability of graduating from college rises from 11 to 27 percent if such a student attends a Catholic high school.

The University of Chicago study confirms results from two other analyses that show the positive effects of attendance at Catholic schools on high school completion and college enrollment for low-income and minority students. University of Wisconsin professor John Witte concludes that studies of private schools "indicate a substantial private school advantage in terms of completing high school and enrolling in college, both very important events in predicting future income and well-being. Moreover . . . the effects were most pronounced for students with achievement test scores in the bottom half of the distribution."

School Discipline. School discipline seems to be more effective in the private schools voucher students attend than the inner-city public schools their peers are attending. Parents and students who have received vouchers report less fighting, cheating, property destruction, and other forms of disruption than do the parents and students who are in public schools.

In Washington, D.C., students in grades five through eight were asked whether or not they felt safe at school. Twenty percent of the public school students said they did not feel safe, as compared to 5 percent of the private school students.

Nationwide studies on public and private schools yield similar information. A survey undertaken by the Educational Testing Service found that eighth-grade students encounter more safety problems in public than in private schools. Fourteen percent of public school students but only 2 to 3 percent of private school students say physical conflicts are a serious or moderate problem. Nine percent of public school students say they feel unsafe in school, but only 4 percent of private school students give the same response.

Homework. Parents of students in voucher programs report that their children have more homework than do the parents of students in public schools. This finding was consistent across a range of studies. In Cleveland, parents of students in the voucher program were significantly less likely than a cross section of Cleveland public school parents to report that "teachers do not assign enough homework." In New York City, 55 percent of the parents with students in private schools reported that their child had more than one hour of homework per day, while only 34 percent of a comparable group of students remaining in public schools reported this much homework. Similarly, in the Edgewood school district in San Antonio, half of the parents of students receiving vouchers reported more than one hour of homework, while only 16 percent of parents of students in public schools reported that much homework.

Parental-School Communications. Parents of students in voucher programs report more extensive communications with their school than do parents with children in public school. In Cleveland, "parents of scholarship students reported participating in significantly more activities than did parents of public school students." Results from a teacher survey further support this finding. Similarly, in New York City, parents of students in private school reported that they were more likely to receive grade information from the school, participate in instruction, attend parent nights, and attend regular parent-teacher conferences.

If the voucher experiment is stopped prematurely, the country will be denied a valuable tool that could help it consider the best ways of improving our educational system.

Suspensions, Expulsions, Absenteeism, and School Changes. Most educators think that, all things being equal, it is better that students stay in the same school, especially during a given school year; students usually learn more when not subjected to the disruption that comes from changing schools. Of course, parents should be allowed to move their child from one school to another if family circumstances require or if a school is not suitable. But changes in the middle of an elementary education either by government fiat or by an individual school should not be made unless the reasons for doing so are compelling.

Most studies indicate that students in voucher programs do not move from one school to another any more frequently than do students in public schools. Also, suspension rates were essentially the same for students with vouchers and for students in public schools. However, in Washington, D.C., suspension rates were higher for voucher students in grades six through eight the first year they entered private schools.

In the Edgewood school district in San Antonio, voucher parents were no more likely to report that their child had been suspended than were public school parents. And the parents of students in the voucher program were more likely than public school parents to say their child had remained in the same school all year. Plans for attending the school during the coming year were similar for the two groups of families. Less than 1 percent of parents of students with vouchers reported that their child had been asked not to return.

The government should expand voucher programs so that more parents whose children attend failing schools have the option of attending the public or private school of their choice.

Parental Satisfaction. Many economists think that consumer satisfaction is the best measure of school quality, just as it is the best measure of other products. According to this criterion, vouchers are a clear success. All evaluations of vouchers have found higher levels of satisfaction among parents receiving vouchers than among comparison groups of parents with students in public schools. In Cleveland, voucher parents were much more satisfied with their school than parents who had applied for but did not use the voucher offered to them. For example, 63 percent of the parents with vouchers said they were very satisfied with the academic quality of the school, compared to 29 percent of those who had not used them. Similar differences in satisfaction levels were observed for school safety, school discipline, class size, and parental involvement.

Some interpreted these findings as showing only that those who had applied for but not received a voucher were particularly unhappy with their public school, not that private school families were particularly satisfied. Those not receiving the voucher or scholarship might simply be uncharacteristic of public school parents in general. To ascertain whether that hypothesis was correct, the satisfaction levels of voucher parents were compared with the satisfaction levels of a random sample of all of Cleveland’s low-income public school parents. Very little support for the hypothesis emerged. Voucher parents were considerably more satisfied with the academic program, school safety, school discipline, and other characteristics of the school their child was attending.

The findings from other cities parallel those from Cleveland. In Milwaukee, the evaluation team found that "in all three years, choice parents were more satisfied with choice schools than they had been with their prior public schools and more satisfied than [Milwaukee public school] parents with their schools. . . . Attitudes were more positive on every item, with ‘discipline in the school’ showing the greatest increase in satisfaction." Studies of the Indianapolis program and an early voucher program in San Antonio (predating the one in the Edgewood school district) also found higher levels of parental satisfaction when families with vouchers were compared to families with students in public schools. A comparison of similar groups of students from low-income families attending public and private schools in Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, also found much higher levels of parental satisfaction with the private schools.


Given the widespread public interest in finding better ways of educating disadvantaged students, it is particularly important that pilot voucher programs be continued so as to permit an assessment of the effectiveness of school vouchers as tools for achieving greater equity in American education, especially since early evaluations of their effectiveness have yielded promising results. If vouchers don’t work, they will be discarded. If vouchers do work, their adoption will gradually spread. But if their exploration is prematurely ended, the country will be denied a valuable tool that could help it consider the best ways of improving our educational system.

On the basis of the available evidence, the federal government should take two steps. First, it should use compensatory education dollars to give parents whose children are attending failing schools the option to attend the public or private school of their choice. Second, it should carry out a pilot voucher program in the District of Columbia that would give all children in the District their choice of school. Such a pilot program would provide information on the impacts of a larger-scale voucher intervention on African American students.