Do School Vouchers Improve the Quality of Education?
Issues and Background
Vouchers don't work. Smaller class size
and proven academic programs do, and they are doable-tomorrow. Given a choice between serving
ideology and maybe helping a relative handful of children-at the expense of the rest-or responding to the
legitimate demands of the vast majority of Americans and serving the needs of all children, the choice is
clear. Let's do what's right and what works.
Federation of Teachers
Competition and the profit motive must be reintroduced into education so that teachers and
school administrators will once again have a powerful incentive to meet the needs of the
children and parents they serve. It can also be expected that the elimination of existing
educational monopolies will alleviate many of the ongoing battles over curriculum and religion in the schools, by
allowing families to pursue an education in accordance with their own values, without the need to impose those
values on others. What remains to be resolved is the question of how to integrate the reintroduction of market
forces with the subsidization of families with limited financial means.
Educational vouchers were proposed by Milton Friedman in the 1950s as a method of improving the
quality of elementary and secondary education. In recent years, there has been renewed interest
in the use of vouchers. A common theme of all voucher proposals is that
households who choose to send their children to private schools would receive a
voucher from the government that would cover some or all of the private school tuition
costs. Advocates of voucher programs argue that these programs provide households with greater
freedom of choice and encourage competition, providing an incentive system
that encourages all schools to improve the quality of education offered to students.
Proponents of vouchers cite studies suggesting that low-income students enrolled in private
schools achieve higher levels of performance on standardized tests (as compared to children
with similar observed characteristics who are enrolled in public schools). They also argue that
private schools face market pressures that force them to use resources more efficiently than
Opponents of voucher systems argue that the higher level of academic performance in private
schools is the result of sample-selection bias. They note that private school students tend
to come from wealthier households in which parents have higher levels of educational attainment.
Those who volunteered to participate in voucher programs, it is argued, are also not random
students from the population. Instead, these individuals tend to come from homes in which
parents place a greater interest in educational achievement. This makes comparisons between
public and private school outcomes problematic. The sample-selection bias argument suggests
that lower academic performance of public school students is the result of differences in
ability and family background factors rather than the result of a lower
quality of education. A related argument suggests that the alleged "inefficiency" of public
schools is the result of the broader range of services required to serve their more
diverse mix of students. Advocates of the public school system argue that voucher
systems transfer resources away from the schools that provide education and training to the
most needy members of society.
Several experimental voucher programs have been introduced in the past decade. One of the oldest
and largest is a pilot program begun in 1990 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Initial analyses of this
data have suggested little or no improvement in the quality of education as the result of a
voucher system. These results, however, are quite controversial and are the subject of a good
deal of debate. More recent pilot programs in New York City and Cleveland are also beginning to
provide additional evidence for this debate. Preliminary, and equally controversial, results from
the New York Choice Scholarship Program suggest that a voucher system has resulted in modest
improvements in test scores for low-income students that transfer to private schools as a result
of a scholarship program.
Another component of the school voucher debate is the separation of church and state that is
required under the U.S. Constitution. A large proportion of private schools in the U.S. have a
religious affiliation and provide some amount of religious instruction. Opponents of a voucher
system argue that aid to religious schools is unconstitutional.
There seems to be a growing concern with the quality of elementary and secondary
education in the U.S. International comparisons suggest that U.S. students often lag
substantially behind students in foreign schools on many measures of academic achievement,
particularly in math and sciences. The debate over vouchers is likely to continue as we
look for ways to improve the quality of education.
Primary Resources and Data
- National Center for Educational Statistics, "Digest of Educational Statistics, 2001"
Digest of Educational Statistics contains an extensive collection of statistics concerning
the costs of education, educational enrollments, educational outcomes, and a variety of other
- U.S. Department of Education
The U.S. Department of Education's web site contains information on federal education programs,
links to online educational resources, access to an online bibliographic database, and information
on Department of Education publications.
- On-line Data Archive - The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, 1990/1991 - 1994/1995
The Data and Program Library Service at the University of Wisconsin contains an on-line data archive for the Milwaukee
Parental Choice Program. Under this experimental voucher program, the state of Wisconsin paid private
schools an amount equal to the amount that Milwaukee public schools would have received in state aid.
This web site contains a description of the study, a bibliography of studies related to this program
(several of these papers are available online), and downloadable survey data.
- Kyo Yamashiro and Lisa Carlos, "Private School Vouchers"
In this online article, Kyo Yamashiro and Lisa Carlos provide a useful summary of
alternative voucher system proposals. They also provide a good discussion of the arguments for
and against a voucher system. A summary of research findings (as of 1995) is also included in
- Dan Laitsch, "School Choice and Privatization Efforts in the States: A
Dan Laitsch examines state legislation regarding school choice in this October 1998 online
article. This article illustrates the extensive variety of school choice initiatives that are
under consideration. These initiatives include vouchers, charter schools, and tax credits. As
Laitsch notes, there are still numerous unresolved constitutional issues involving the
use of public funds to pay for educational services at schools operated by religious institutions.
Different Perspectives in the Debate
- The Bradley Foundation
The Bradley Foundation is one of the primary financial supporters of
the movement to introduce educational vouchers. Their web site contains
information about their scholarship programs as well as other initiatives.
- Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation
The Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation provides financial support
for educational choice program. This web site also contains links to
articles and studies that support increased privatization of education.
- The Center for Educational Reform
The Center for Educational Reform provides information, news, and links
to online resources that support vouchers and other privatization efforts.
Much of the voucher related materials can be found on their School
- National Educational Association
The National Educational Association opposes vouchers and other privatization
efforts. Their Vouchers
page contains information and links to resources that suggest that a
voucher system is undesirable.
- Lawrence C. Stedman, "The Condition of Education: Why School
Reformers are on the Right Track"
Lawrence C. Stedman discusses the need for school reform in this online
article. He provides summaries of studies of the quality of education
and notes that there is no compelling evidence of a decline in the general
quality of education. Instead, most evidence points to either stable
or rising performance on standardized measures of educational outcomes.
Stedman notes, however, that there are problems with the U.S. educational
system. These problems include limited student experience in writing,
limited interactive learning, brief or nonexistent homework assignments,
and, at best, limited student and instructor engagement in academic
pursuits. He suggests that these problems are, and should continue to
be, the focus of reform efforts. While this is not, strictly speaking,
an article dealing with vouchers, it provides some useful insight into
trends in measured academic outcomes.
- Peter Schrag, "The Great School Sell Off"
In this article appearing in the Winter 1993 issue of The American
Prospect, Peter Schrag argues against school voucher systems. He
argues that there is no reliable evidence suggesting that private schools
provide enhanced educational outcomes. Schrag suggests that it is wiser
to devote more spending to raising standards in public schools.
- Bob Chase, "Voucher System Would Hurt Schools Not Help"
In this December 2, 1996 document, Bob Chase, the President of the National
Education Association provides an argument against vouchers. He argues that a voucher system will raise the cost of education and provide public
subsidies to private schools that reject a substantial proportion of
their applicants. Chase argues that a voucher system helps "a few kids
at the expense of many...."
- School Choices
This web site provides links to resources related to educational vouchers.
These resources include press releases, online articles, information
about current court cases, and a variety of related materials.
- Milton Friedman, "The Role of Government in Education"
Milton Friedman argues for the increased use of markets to improve the
quality of education in the U.S. Friedman argues that while government
subsidies for education may be appropriate, there is no necessary economic
reason for government provision of educational services. Friedman argues
for a voucher system that encourages competition among a variety of
- Milton Friedman, "Public Schools: Make Them Private"
Milton Friedman provides further arguments for a voucher system in this
June 23, 1995 CATO Institute Briefing Paper. Friedman argues
that school quality has declined as it has become increasingly centralized.
He argues that political revolutions have caused economic systems to
replace centrally planned resource systems with market systems. Friedman
argues that a similar market-based approach would improve the quality
of education and believes that a voucher program is the best way to
achieve this goal. He also notes that income inequality has been increasing
in the U.S. He believes that the current education system encourages
this growing income disparity by providing low-quality public schools
to students from low-income households while students from higher-income
households receive higher quality public or private education.
- David Friedman, "The Weak Case for Public Schooling"
David Friedman argues, in this online article, that the government should
not provide education. He argues that most of the benefits from education
are captured by the individual who acquires it. While some of the benefits
from education are captured by society in the form of higher tax payments
from individuals with higher levels of educational attainment, Friedman
argues that this is an argument against the efficiency cost of taxation,
not an argument for public subsidies for education (since educational
subsides require higher taxes). He believes that externality arguments
for public subsidies are, at best, quite weak. Friedman provides several
examples of cases in which public education relied on educational philosophies
that were not consistent with the educational needs of children and
suggests that this is the result of relying on public control rather
than private choice. While Friedman accepts that capital market imperfections
may limit access to very low-income families, he suggests that this
should be dealt with by subsidies for low-income households, not with
across-the-board provision of public education. Friedman believes that
a complete privatization of education is better than a voucher system
because a voucher system still provides the government with central
control over education and the possibility of wasteful expenditures.
He does believe, however, that a voucher system would be preferable
to our current public educational system.
- Andrew Coulson, "Markets Versus Monopolies in Education: The
Andrew Coulson presents a case for educational vouchers in this online
article appearing on the Education Policy Analysis Archives web site.
He argues that monopoly control over schools results in an inefficient
educational system. Coulson suggests that a competitive environment
would encourage all schools to improve quality and efficiency. He notes
that governmental involvement in formal education is a recent phenomenon
and cites historical examples of privately provided education from the
period of the ancient Greeks to more recent times. Coulson provides
several anecdotes suggesting that the increased involvement of the government
in education has resulted in a less creative and efficient educational
- Myron Lieberman, "Privatization and Educational Choice"
Myron Lieberman provides a case for privatization in this online book
written in 1989. He discusses the case for contracting out as well as
the use of voucher systems.
- Nina Shokraii Rees and Jennifer Garrett, "How Members of Congress Practice Private
Nina Shokraii Rees and Jennifer Garrett examine the school choices for the children of members
of Congress in the September 9, 1997 Heritage publication. She finds
that the children of members of Congress are significantly more likely
to attend private schools than is true for a child in the general population.
She suggests that Congress should support voucher systems that would
provide similar opportunities for families with lower levels of income.
- Jennifer Garrett, "Another Look at How Members of Congress Exercise School Choice"
Jennifer Garrett re-examines the school choices for the children of members
of Congress in the May 22, 2002 Heritage publication. She finds
that the children of members of Congress are still significantly more likely
to attend private schools than is true for a child in the general population.
- Nina Shokraii Rees, "Public School Benefits of Private School
Nina Shokraii Rees argues, in this article appearing in the January/February
1999 issue of Policy Review, that voucher systems and other school
choice programs are forcing public schools to improve. She provides
a variety of anecdotal evidence and summaries of more formal studies
that support this argument. A collection of links to other web sites
that support voucher and other school choice programs appears at the
end of this document.
- Samuel Casey Carter, "A Question of Capacity"
In this January/February 1999 article in Policy Review, Samuel
Casey Carter notes that vouchers can provide improvements in the quality
of education for a small proportion of public school students. He argues,
though, that private school capacity will increase only if there is
a substantial increase in the size of the voucher payment. Carter argues
in support of an expansion in voucher programs as a method of improving
- Martin Carnoy, "Do School Vouchers Improve Student Performance?"
In this online January 1-15, 2001 American Prospect article, Martin Carnoy
examines the empirical evidence concerning school vouchers and educational performance. He notes that
several of the studies find no significant effects when the effect of other factors are held constant while some found
significant gains for minority students who transfer from public to private schools. Carnoy notes
that these studies are flawed by the nonrandom nature of the selection process.
- John F. Witte, Christopher A. Thorn, and Kim A. Pritchard, "Private
and Public Education in Wisconsin: Implications for the Choice Debate"
John F. Witte, Christopher A. Thorn, and Kim A. Pritchard use data from
the pilot Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to compare and contrast
the characteristics of students at public and private schools. They
note that approximately 90% of the students in private schools are enrolled
in schools with a religious affiliation. Witte, Thorn, and Pritchard
note that private school students are disproportionately white and are
more likely to live in urban areas. Parents of private school students
have higher incomes, lower unemployment rates, and are more likely to
be employed full time.
- John F. Witte, Troy D. Sterr, and Christopher A. Thorn, "Fifth-Year
Report: Milwaukee Parental Choice Program"
This report summarizes the official findings for the first five years
of experience with the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Witte, Sterr,
and Thorn note that the program was successful in providing an opportunity
for children from low-income households to attend private schools. They
note, however, that no convincing evidence was found that private school
attendance resulted in improved educational outcomes. Parents of children
in the program, however, evaluated the private schools more favorably
than the public schools previously attended.
- Erik Gunn, "Voucher Schools: The Inside Story"
Erik Gunn notes that many voucher schools participating in the Milwaukee
study have either closed or were at risk of closing. Anecdotal evidence
of the effects of these closings on students is provided in the article.
- Jay P. Greene, Paul E. Peterson, and Jiangtao Du, "Effectiveness
of School Choice: The Milwaukee Experiment"
Jay P. Greene, Paul Peterson, and Jiangtao Du critique John Witte's
studies of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. They note that his
studies rely on highly selected samples that are subject to substantial
missing data problems. Greene, Peterson, and Du use an alternative methodology
that relies on the random treatment of students to treatment and control
groups. They find that voucher students exhibited substantial gains
in reading and math scores during their third and fourth years of attendance
at private school.
- Ed Muir, "Comments on Methodology of Greene, Peterson and Du:
'The Effectiveness of School Choice in Milwaukee: A Secondary Analysis
of Data from the Program's Evaluation'
Ed Muir provides a critique of the methodology used in the Greene, Peterson,
and Du study. He argues that they provided an inadequate discussion
of their methodology and did not present complete results.
- John F. Witte, "Reply to Greene, Peterson and Du: 'The Effectiveness
of School Choice in Milwaukee: A Secondary Analysis of Data from the
John Witte critiques the Greene, Peterson, and Du study in this online
response. Witte argues that the methodology used by Greene, Peterson,
and Du cannot be appropriately applied to small samples of the sort
that appear in this data set. He also notes that their study did not
undergo to peer review process that is the standard in all science and
social science disciplines. Witte notes that Green, Peterson, and Du
do not rely on the conventional standards of statistical significance
used by virtually all statistical practitioners, do not fully utilize
all of the data available in the sample, do not control for variables
that are known to be important, and do not adequately report their methodology
- Jay P. Greene and Paul E. Peterson, "Methodological Issues in
Evaluation Research: The Milwaukee School Choice Plan"
In this online paper, Jay P. Greene and Paul E. Peterson respond to
Witte's reply. Greene and Peterson argue that Witte did not defends
his own analysis against their criticisms. Greene and Peterson also
provide a detailed justification for the empirical methodology used
in by Greene, Peterson, and Du. To view this document, the Adobe acrobat
viewer plugin is required. You may download this viewer by clicking
- Paul E. Peterson and Chad Noyes, "Under Extreme Duress, School
In this February 1996 online article, Paul E. Peterson and Chad Noyes
argue that Milwaukee voucher experiment was remarkably successful and
popular, despite numerous restrictions placed on the program.
- Wisconsin Education Association Council, "Resources on Private
This page, provided by the Wisconsin Education Association Council,
contains an extensive collection of links to online articles concerning
school vouchers. Since this organization represents public school teachers,
most of the linked articles provide arguments or evidence against the
use of vouchers.
- Wisconsin Education Association Council, "Private Schools and
Private School Vouchers: What the Research Shows"
The Wisconsin Education Association Council provides arguments against
school vouchers in this online research paper. The Association argues
that recent research suggests that the higher level of student achievement
found in private schools is the result of differences in student background,
ability and other factors.
- National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers,
"School Vouchers: The Emerging Track Record"
In this April 1999 document, the National Educational Association and
the American Federation of Teachers provide an analysis of research
findings on school vouchers. They argue that the existing body of research
provides no compelling evidence of educational benefits that result
from voucher systems. It is argued that the few studies that found evidence
of higher quality of education in private schools were either based
on small samples or did not control for differences in class size. Studies
are cited that indicate that vouchers lead to greater socioeconomic
and racial segregation in schools and drain resources away from public
- American Federation of Teachers, "Small Class Size Trumps Vouchers
In Terms of Results, Costs, and Public Support"
In this online article, the American Federation of Teachers summarizes
several studies that suggest that class size has a larger effect on
educational outcomes than vouchers. The Federation argues that reductions
in class size will generate larger improvements in educational outcomes
than would result from the same expenditures on voucher programs.
- Paul E. Peterson, William G. Howell, and Jay P. Greene, "An
Evaluation of the Cleveland Voucher Program After Two Years"
In this June 1999 study, Peterson, Howell, and Greene investigate the
effects of the first two years of the Cleveland Voucher program. This
program, begun in 1996, provided scholarships to 1996 children enrolled
in kindergarten through third grade. The scholarships could be used
at any participating religious or secular private school. Peterson,
Howell, and Greene find evidence of substantially higher reading and
math tests scores for the scholarship students. They also note that
parents of scholarship students are more satisfied with the quality
of education. (To view this document, the Adobe acrobat viewer plugin
is required. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)
- Paul E. Peterson, David Myers, and William G. Howell, "An Evaluation
of the New York City School Choice Scholarships Program: The First Year"
- David Myers, Paul Peterson, Daniel Mayer, Julia Chou, and William G. Howell, "School
Choice in New York City After Two Years: An Evaluation of the School Choice Scholarships Program: Interim Report"
- Daniel P. Mayer, Paul E. Peterson, David E. Myers, Christina Clark Tuttle and William G. Howell,
"School Choice in New York City After Three Years: An Evaluation of the School Choice Scholarships Program: Final Report"
The evaluation of the first three years of the New York City School Choice
Scholarships Program was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and
the Program on Education and Governance at Harvard University. Under
this scholarship program, the School Choice Foundation offered 1,300
scholarship of $1,400 per year (for at least 3 years) for children from
low-income households who transferred from a public school to a private
school. A random selection procedure was used to select 1,300 of the
more than 20,000 applicants for these scholarships. The authors of these studies
find that African-American students who received scholarships received higher
test scores than students who had not received
scholarships. No statistically significant effect on test scores was found for
Latino students after three years of this study. The parents of scholarship students
reported a higher level of satisfaction with the quality of education than did parents of students
in the control group.
- Jay Greene, "A Survey of Results from Voucher Experiments: Where We Are and What We Know"
Jay Greene summarizes the empirical evidence concerning vouchers
in this July 2000 online article. He notes that well-designed studies have found either a
positive or neutral affect of vouchers on student achievement, voucher funding outcomes have been positively assessed by parents, and
the use of vouchers has had a positive or neutral effect on desegregation.
- Henry M. Levin and Cyrus E. Driver, "Estimating the Costs of
an Educational Voucher System"
Henry M. Levin and Cyrus E. Driver provide rough estimates of the cost
of an educational voucher system. This study provides a nice description
of the societal costs associated with the introduction of such a system.
While noting that specifics of the voucher plan would affect the overall
costs, they argue that such a plan is likely to lead to higher societal
costs of providing elementary and secondary education.