Vouchers and the Power of Choice

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Historically, most school boards in the United States assigned students to schools by drawing boundaries that established specific attendance areas. Where one lived determined the school one attended. Families had relatively little choice in the matter.

The situation has changed substantially in recent years. Today, a wide variety of school choice mechanisms are available to parents and students—vouchers, magnet schools, charter schools, interdistrict choice programs, home-schooling, tax credits and tax deductions for private tuition, and, above all, school choice through residential selection. Responding to demands by parents for greater choice among schools, states today provide a greater range of choices than ever before. Approximately 63 percent of American families with school-age children are making a choice when sending their child to school. According to a 1993 Department of Education survey, 39 percent of all parents said that where they chose to live was influenced by the school their child would attend. Another 11 percent of the population sends their children to private school. And still another 13 percent of families has a choice among public schools, such as magnet schools, charter schools, and interdistrict choice programs.

In just 10 years, the number of students involved in voucher programs has climbed from zero to more than 60,000.

Choice programs are rapidly expanding in size and number, and the topic has become a matter of significant public discussion and debate, with most public opinion studies finding increased demand for school choice, especially among citizens from low-income and minority backgrounds.

Relationships among School Choice Programs

One cannot understand the full range of school choices available to families apart from an appreciation of the relationships among the wide variety of programs that are increasingly available. In every state, families have some choice of school, even if it is limited to paying for a private education or choosing to live in a neighborhood served by a school the family thinks desirable. In many metropolitan areas, families can choose among magnet schools, charter schools, and a voucher program.

When several programs are located in the same place, they can affect one another in important ways. Schools that once participated in a voucher program may establish themselves as charter schools, perhaps because charter school funding generally exceeds state funding under voucher programs. Parents with students in private schools may decide to save money by enrolling their children in charter schools.

All these choice programs provide traditional public schools with incentives to modify their practices so as to maintain their enrollments—and the per-pupil state aid that they have previously received. The availability of school vouchers has already begun to affect public school policies and practices. In the Edgewood school district in San Antonio, Texas, for example, the local school board accepted the resignation of its superintendent and, in a reversal of an earlier decision, established a school-uniform policy. In Florida, the first two schools judged to be failing by the state—and therefore placed immediately in the voucher program—made significant policy changes after receiving their ignominious designation. One school introduced uniforms, a new phonics reading program, and class-size reduction in kindergarten; the other introduced Saturday and after-school tutoring sessions and conducted home visits to discourage truancy. Both schools have begun to focus on the basics of reading, writing, and math, in part by hiring more full-time reading and writing specialists.

Initial studies show that voucher schools are more successful than public schools at providing discipline. Likewise, voucher students tend to have more homework than their peers in public schools.

More systematic evidence is available from ongoing research on other choice experiments. According to a study of the effect of charter schools on traditional public schools in Arizona, "districts that have lost large numbers of children to charter schools make efforts to win those children back. Sometimes those efforts pay off."

These are only preliminary pieces of information. We do not yet know how this ferment in American education, which is undoubtedly giving families greater choice than before, will affect education policy and governance in the long run. Nor do we know how school choice will affect students and families in the long run. We must continue to try out a full range of school options in a variety of contexts to determine which, if any, may benefit students and their families in the long term.

With this explosion in school choice as a backdrop, I examine in depth the way in which the most controversial of existing choice programs—school vouchers—has worked in the few cities where vouchers have been tried.

Voucher Programs: A Brief History

Residential selection, magnet schools, interdistrict enrollment, private schools, and charter schools provide options to a wide range of groups, but, on balance, these options, when taken together, tend to give more choice to middle- than low-income families. Publicly and privately funded vouchers, as currently designed and operated, serve almost exclusively a low-income population, thus offering choice opportunities to those who otherwise have none.

Despite frequent criticisms that voucher programs will polarize communities, the early evidence shows that such programs actually have a positive effect on the racial and ethnic integration of students.

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 were participating in 68 privately funded voucher programs and another 12,000 or more in 3 publicly funded ones.

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; by the fall of 1999 the number of participating students had reached nearly 4,000. In 1999 students received a scholarship of up to $2,250, substantially less than the amount spent per pupil by Cleveland public schools. The Milwaukee program, established in 1990, originally allowed students to attend only schools without a religious affiliation, and only a few hundred students participated in the program in its first year. In the 1998–99 school year, however, the program, after overcoming constitutional objections, was expanded to include religious schools, and in 2000 the number of participating students had increased to approximately 12,000, with participating students receiving 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 of up to $3,389.

Privately funded voucher programs are operating in many cities. In 1999, the Children’s Scholarship Fund greatly expanded the size and range of such programs by providing 40,000 vouchers to students from low-income families nationwide. In the United States, ideas that are initially too untried and controversial for governments to attempt will often be explored by private or nonprofit entities, with the sponsorship of tax-exempt private foundations. So it is with vouchers. Several privately funded voucher programs currently provide valuable information about the ways in which voucher programs differ from traditional scholarship programs. First, vouchers are not conditional on student performance. If more applications are received than can be funded by resources available to the private foundation sponsoring the program, vouchers are distributed by means either of 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 from a wide variety of participating secular or parochial schools. In these ways, the private programs approximate what is developing in the public sector. The privately funded voucher programs that have been studied by independent research teams are in Dayton, the Edgewood school district in San Antonio, Indianapolis, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

When Voucher Programs Are Introduced

A series of studies has provided 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 educational climate at voucher schools; and the impact of vouchers on homework, school-home communications, and parental satisfaction.

Voucher Recipients

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

Considerable information is now available on the types of students and families who participate in means-tested voucher programs. In general, there is little evidence 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 represent a cross-section of public school students, though some may come from somewhat more educated families.

If vouchers don’t work, they will be discarded. If vouchers do work, their adoption will gradually spread. But if the exploration of voucher programs is ended prematurely, the country will be denied a valuable tool.

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, on beginning their new school, were similar to those of students in public schools and reading scores that were only modestly higher. Voucher students were no more likely than public school students 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.

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 those parents said "academic quality," "teacher quality," or "what was taught in class." Only 15 percent listed the religious affiliation of the school as most important. In New York City, parents who received vouchers were asked which considerations were very important for their choice of school. The six most frequently mentioned were teacher quality, what is taught in class, safety, school discipline, school quality, and class size. Religious instruction was seventh, convenient location was ninth, and the sports program and a school where a child’s friend was attending were tied at the bottom.

School Quality and Student Learning

Proponents of school vouchers have expected that schools will perform better—and students will learn more—if families can choose their children’s schools, that there will be a better match between the students’ needs and the schools’ characteristics, and that a stronger identification between family and school will be realized. Preliminary information on these issues is now available.

Test scores. The debate over student achievement is likely to continue for some years to come, not only because it is difficult to measure how much children are learning in school but also because groups and individuals differ over what in fact should be learned in school. According to test score results, 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 receive a voucher opportunity. After two years, however, students from other ethnic backgrounds seem to learn as much but no more in private school 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, some recent data on the effects of attendance at a Catholic high school indicate that students from all racial and ethnic groups are more likely to go to college if they attended a Catholic school but that the effects are the greatest for urban minorities. The probability of graduating from college rises from 11 to 27 percent if a student attends a Catholic high school.

School discipline. School discipline seems to be more effective in the private schools voucher students attend than in the inner-city public schools their peers attend. Parents and students in voucher schools 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 they felt safe at school. Twenty percent of the public school students said they did not feel safe, as compared with 5 percent of the private school students. Nationwide information on public and private schools yields similar information.

Homework. Parents of students in voucher programs report that their children have more homework than do 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 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 a day, while only 34 percent of a comparable group of students in public schools reported this much homework.

Parent-school communications. Parents of students in voucher programs report more extensive communications with their school than do parents with children in public schools. In the Edgewood school district in San Antonio, parents of students with vouchers were more likely to report that they had attended a school activity at least once in the past month than were parents of students in public schools. They were also more likely to report that they had attended a parent-teacher conference. Similarly, in New York City, parents of students in private schools 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.

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 forced changes in the middle of an elementary education—either by government fiat or by an individual school—should not be undertaken without a compelling reason. 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.

Parental Satisfaction

Many economists believe that consumer satisfaction is the best measure of school quality, just as it is the best measure of a successful product. According to this criterion, vouchers are a clear success. All evaluations of vouchers have found higher levels of parental 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, as compared to 29 percent of those who had not used them. Similar differences in satisfaction were observed for school safety, school discipline, class size, and parental involvement. The findings from other cities parallel those in Cleveland.

Impact of Voucher Programs on Civil Society

A major concern of critics of school vouchers is their impact on civil society. Even if students learn to read, write, and calculate better by means of a voucher program than in a public school, these gains will be offset, it is argued, by the polarization and balkanization of our society that necessarily accompany greater parental choice in education. In the words of commentator Michael Kelley, "public money is shared money, and it is to be used for the furtherance of shared values, in the interests of e pluribus unum. Charter schools and their like . . . take from the pluribus to destroy the unum." Amy Gutmann, the Princeton political theorist, makes much the same argument: "Public, not private, schooling is . . . the primary means by which citizens can morally educate future citizens."

Some information about the impact of vouchers on civil society is now available. Despite the concerns many have expressed, vouchers typically have positive effects on racial and ethnic integration, racial and ethnic conflict, political participation, civic participation, and political tolerance. Private schools are more likely than public schools—or at least no less likely—to be racially and ethnically integrated, perhaps because private schools can draw students from a more extensive catchment area, and religious schools may provide a common tie that cuts across racial lines. Nationally, private school classrooms are estimated to be 7 percent more integrated than public school.

In San Antonio’s Edgewood district, students were asked with whom they ate lunch, because interracial conversations at lunch time suggest that students enjoy eating together, a particularly meaningful finding. Students with vouchers were just as likely as public school students to say that they ate lunch with people of other ethnic backgrounds.

Students in private schools are often less likely to be engaged in or witness racial conflicts. Nationally, more interracial friendships are reported by students in private schools than in public schools. Students also report less interracial fighting in private schools than public ones, as do administrators and teachers. Consistent with these findings, parents of students with vouchers in Cleveland reported less racial conflict than students in public schools. Similar differences between public and private schools were reported by parents in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio.

Private school students are also more community-spirited than those in public schools. Nationwide, students at private schools are more likely than public school students to think that it is important to help others and volunteer for community causes and more likely to report that they in fact did volunteer in the past two years. Finally, private school students were more likely to say their school expected them to volunteer and are also more likely to be tolerant of unpopular groups.

Public school administrators (in a confidential survey) are less likely to say their school does an outstanding job of promoting citizenship than are private school administrators. Similar differences appear when administrators are asked to rate their school’s performance in teaching values and morals and promoting awareness of contemporary social issues.


Choice in American education is now widespread and has taken many forms: Charters, magnet schools, tax-deduction programs, interdistrict enrollment programs, private schools, choice by residential selection, and school vouchers. Many of these programs give greater choice to middle- and upper-income families than to poor families. In this context, school vouchers, as currently designed, provide an egalitarian supplement to existing choice arrangements without restricting choices to parents with specific religious affiliation. Given the widespread public interest in finding better ways of educating disadvantaged children, it is particularly important that pilot voucher programs be continued so as to assess the effectiveness of vouchers as tools for achieving greater equity in American education, especially because early evaluations 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 its educational system.