The recent appointment of Betsy DeVos as the United States Secretary of Education has brought the issue of school choice – and particularly school vouchers – into the forefront of American education policy. Secretary DeVos is a vocal supporter of school choice policies and, since her confirmation, has advocated for their expansion. In addition, the proposed 2018 federal budget allocates an additional $1.4 billion for school choice programs, indicative of the current administration’s strong support for choice policies.
So what is a school voucher, and do they promote academic achievement and educational equity? Essentially, a school voucher is a type of school choice policy that allows a child to use public funds to attend a private school of their choosing. Vouchers are implemented at the state or district level. The “per pupil” dollars that would typically be allocated to the child’s public school instead follows them to a private school that accepts vouchers. Broadly, supporters of voucher programs believe they promote school choice and improvement for public schools, while opponents disagree with the diversion of public money into private – and often religious – schools.
According to EdChoice, a pro-school choice organization, approximately 178,000 students currently utilize school vouchers. These students comprise far less than one percent of all public school students and about three percent of all private school students. EdChoice reported that as of 2017, 15 states supported voucher programs. The largest voucher programs by the number of participants are in Indiana, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
A growing body of evidence suggests that school voucher programs are not associated with increased academic achievement for participants. A 2017 review of existing literature conducted by the Economic Policy Institute concluded that voucher programs across the country produce limited – if any – gains in academic achievement. In addition, an evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program found that students using vouchers actually performed worse academically after one year than students who had applied for a voucher but not received one (Dynarski, Rui, Webber, & Gutmann, 2017). However, at least one study found that the use of vouchers was associated with increased high school graduation rates (Wolf, et al., 2010).
Evidence on the impact of vouchers on school segregation is inconclusive and depends on the demographic profile of public and private schools in a given area. An analysis by The Century Foundation’s Halley Potter (2017) notes that D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program may have a positive effect on school integration. Ninety-four percent of program participants were Black and more than half of voucher users attended private schools that were “relatively integrated”. However, in the same report Potter found mixed impacts on segregation in Louisiana, with about two-thirds of voucher transfers increasing segregation at their public school, private school, or both.
In sum, the current research on school vouchers indicates that they do not promote educational equity and may in fact be associated with negative academic impacts on voucher participants. Further, recent research indicates that some private schools that accept public money through voucher programs discriminate against students on the basis of their sexuality, gender identity, race, religion, language, and disability status (Eckes, Mead, & Ulm, 2016). Together, this evidence does not support the notion that school voucher programs promote academic achievement or educational equity for all students.
Carnoy, M. (2017). School vouchers are not a proven strategy for improving student achievement. Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved from http://www.epi.org/publication/school-vouchers-are-not-a-proven-strategy-for-improving-student-achievement/
Dynarski, M., Rui, N., Webber, A., & Gutmann, B. (2017). Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts after one year. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences.
Eckes, S.E., Mead, J., Ulm, J. (2016). Dollars to discriminate: The (un)intended consequences of school vouchers. Peabody Journal of Education, 91(4), 537-558.
EdChoice. (2017). The ABCs of School Choice: The Compehensive Guide to Every Private School Choice Program in America, 2017 Edition. EdChoice. Retrieved from https://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/The-ABCs-of-School-Choice-1.pdf
Potter, H. (2017). Do private school vouchers pose a threat to integration? The Century Foundation. Retrieved from https://tcf.org/content/report/private-school-vouchers-pose-threat-integration/
Wolf, P., Gutmann, B., Puma, M., Kisida, B., Rizzo, L., Eissa, N., & Carr, M. (2010). Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Final Report. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20104018/pdf/20104018.pdf