Vouchers: An Initiative for School Reform?
Since the introduction of the 1983 Nation at Risk report on the
state of America's schools, parents and government leaders have searched
for a "better way" to address the need to educate all youth. Some would
contend that choice is critical to the process by which parents, students,
and teachers can build consensus that allows for the growth of a learning
community. Vouchers are a means of deregulation that allow tuition to be
paid at non- governmental schools.
Vouchers have been introduced in 27 state legislatures across this country
as part of the structural reform movement in public education. As the use
of vouchers has increased, public debate has intensified over the use of
public funds in providing "school choice." This issue paper will discuss
vouchers from a historical and legal perspective, their present status in
several states, and will address implications and recommendations for
Although there are numerous forms of voucher proposals, each relies on the
basic assumption that vouchers are financial entitlements distributed to
the student's parents by the government (Cobb, 1992). The federal or state
money that once went to the school will now be advanced directly to the
parents in order to send their child (student) to a school of their
choice. The concept of educational vouchers is not new and can be traced
back to the economic and political policies of this country.
According to Louann Bierlein (1993), the entire notion of vouchers and
school competition can be traced to the 1700's with Adam Smith's Wealth
of Nations and Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man. Adam Smith
believed that teachers, as public employees, would lack the
motivation to improve their performance like those in the private sector.
Introduction of some means of competition was a must. Paine proposed that
England provide each pupil with an education allowance good for six years
at any school of choice. He theorized that educational choice would
promote competition and lead to the success and vitality of the best
schools. He and Smith proposed the notion of vouchers in the late 1700's.
The concept has recently come to the forefront once again in England and
other countries, including the United States.
School choice has been long been utilized by the wealthy. Church schools
and private secular schools were the first educational institutions in
this country. Public education formed as the demand for access to
education increased. Vouchers, as a means to privatize public education,
may encourage private entrepreneurs to form schools for-profit.
The contemporary choice debate was originally initiated by Milton
Friedman's 1955 book Economics and the Public Interest. Friedman
wanted to introduce the forces of free market into the educational system
by advocating that parents receive educational vouchers. Friedman used the
Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944(the G. I. Bill) as an example.
Under the conditions of this act, Americans received public moneys to
attend public and private institutions.
In 1970 a "regulated compensatory voucher" was called for in a U. S.
Office of Economic Opportunity's report. Bierlein (1993) writes, "The
voucher was to provide more money for students with special needs but did
not allow parents to add money to the value of the voucher,"(pg. 94). The
results of the report led to an intradistrict pilot program in Alum Rock,
California, which lasted five years. The program increased teacher
autonomy, parental involvement, and school-level autonomy. Research did
not show a great impact on student achievement (Bierlein 1993).
The NEA vehemently opposed vouchers at its 1970 annual convention. It was
the group's contention that vouchers would lead to racial and economic
divisions while contributing to the social isolation of children. Vouchers
would further weaken or destroy the public school system. The NEA wanted
federal and state legislators to prohibit voucher plans. Their stance
concerning vouchers has remained the same as that voiced in the 1970
convention (Bierlein 1993).
During the Reagan administration in the early 1980's, there was a push for
a system of tuition credits to allow tax breaks for parents with children
in private schools. At the same time, the Reagan administration attempted
to convert federally funded programs for disadvantaged students, such as
One into individual vouchers. The entire issue of tax credits for
private school tuition and attempting to disband programs that advance the
disadvantaged was perceived as part of a conservative agenda. Members of
Congress and educational organizations were strong opponents of these
policies, causing vouchers and tuition credits to lose momentum at the
Choice and vouchers did not completely die out during the Reagan years. In
1990, Wisconsin enacted legislation that allowed a small percentage of low
income students within the Milwaukee Public School District to attend
"private, nonsectarian schools" (Bierlein 1993). This initiative was
immediately challenged in court and remains a legal issue at the present
time. In the 1993-94 school year, 950 students from low income families
participated in Milwaukee's voucher system. Over 70% of these students
were African- American and 20% were Hispanic. For many years the state of
Vermont has offered choice to students who live in towns without a local
public school. Parents are allowed to choose a public or private
"non-sectarian" school from a list of state approved schools with full
tuition paid. Although vouchers are currently being debated in many
states, they have existed in other states in one form or another.
The constitutionality of vouchers is always in question. In the 1947
Everson case, the Supreme Court approved state reimbursement to parents of
children in nonpublic schools for the cost of transportation. The Court
ruled that since the aid went directly to parents, rather than to schools,
the establishment clause was not being violated. The establishment clause
demanded the separation of church and state. According to Justice Hugo
Black, the government cannot pass laws that, "aid one religion,
aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another" (as quoted by Snyder,
The 1984 Grove City College v. Bell may be the legal predecessor to
the course of proposed educational vouchers. Grove City college is a
private, religiously affiliated school that historically refused direct
governmental aid. Over one hundred students were receiving the Basic
Education Opportunity Grants, and over 300 students had taken out
Guaranteed Student Loans. As with vouchers the money went directly to
students and not the college. The Court ruled that "assistance to students
implied assistance to at least part of the institution itself" (Snyder,
1985). This ruling may hold many implications for vouchers and private
schools. For example allowing parents to use government sanctioned
vouchers at private schools gives the government some control over private
schools. According to P.L. 94-142, The Education of All Handicapped
Children Act, students with special needs must be served in the least
restrictive environment. Private schools receiving government vouchers
will have to have programs to meet the special needs of these students and
function within federal guidelines. National Standards may also require
that private schools with voucher students adhere to the same curricular
goals and expectations as public schools.
Over the past four decades the Supreme Court
has interpreted the laws surrounding the issue of separation of church and
state in many different ways. The Court has established a three part test
that is used to determine the constitutionality of aid to religious
According to Fulton, (URL: email@example.com) "The constitutional
question, then, may no longer be whether a voucher program has the primary
effect of advancing religion, since the primary effect would be outside
the religious atmosphere...Instead, it would take the position that
educational quality was its primary goal..."
- All government funding must have a secular purpose.
- Its primary effect must not be the advancement of religion.
- It must not entangle the state excessively in church affairs.
- The school choice reform movement was spurred on by the 1983 Nation at
Risk Report and many states are using this as a springboard to experiment and
promote voucher systems.
- Far right conservative politicians such as Jesse Helms, Edwin Meese, David
Stockman, Orrin Hatch and Newt Gingrich are pushing a political agenda that seeks to
decentralize the federal government's role in public education. Many of their programs,
such as Contract with America, abolishing the Department of Education, closing down
federal support for federal research, supporting block grants, and privatization of the
public sector, favor those who have the "highest potential to contribute to society"
- The Religious Right ( URL: firstname.lastname@example.org) has successfully organized
into a political force lobbying federal and state legislatures into adopting policies that
promote prayer in schools, and curricular reform including creationism and Christian
- Many school systems are experimenting with privatization of educational services
to improve fiscal efficiency. Vouchers are one more step in privatization of schools.
- Many parents of low SES students believe that vouchers will allow their children to
receive the same quality of education as those students in private schools.
- Educational researchers (Chubb & Moe 1990) agree with economists who support
a free market system and favor increased competition forcing schools to improve their
organization in order to attract students.
Issue in Action
- Most of the present voucher systems focus on disadvantaged students. Recently
there have been only three experiments that have attempted to fully implement the use of
vouchers; these have taken place in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee. One of
the most recent and controversial voucher plans proposed is taking place for
Washington D.C. will be determined in the November 1996 elections.
- The Indianapolis and
Minneapolis programs are similar in design. They both have sponsorship
from a private corporation that supplies small scholarships to students of low socio-
economic status. Participation is limited to a few hundred students. About 1,000
students received scholarships of approximately $800 per student. Half of the spaces
in these schools can be used by students who have previously attended private schools.
Indianapolis has roughly 50,000 students enrolled in their public schools; of these
students, 500-800 have chosen to participate in these programs. Minneapolis is similar
in design but serves fewer students and involves the allocation less money.
schools have state-supported vouchers. Students receive about $2,738 towards private
school tuition. These students must live in households where the income is below the
poverty line and have enrolled in the school system the previous year. Nationally, 60%
of these families earn less than 10,000 a year. Milwaukee public schools enroll
approximately 90,000 students and 60,000 of these students are allowed to participate
in the voucher program. About 998 students applied to private schools, but a lack of
funds limited participation to 613 students. Milwaukee is also paving the way in the
voucher debate because this system wants to allow voucher use in religious schools as
well as nonsectarian schools. Opponents have argued in court that this program is
unconstitutional because it violates the premise of seperation of church and state. A
decision is expected by June 1996.
- The Cleveland
plan proposes that parents would receive $2,500 each and have the choice of
sending their children to a private or parochial school. This is the first program to
include religious schools in the initial planning. Opponents to this plan believe that
vouchers give public money to religious schools thereby crossing the line of separation
of church and state. Public school teachers argue that private schools have always had
choice as to who they admit to their schools. It is the private schools who have the
choice and not the parents. Public schools must serve everyone. Proponents say that
private schools are more successful; all students should have the opportunity to benefit
from this expertise.
- The voucher program in the District of Columbia is relatively new. The House has
voted 241-177 to allocate moneys to needy students who could receive up to $3,000 in
federal funds to pay for their tuition at private schools of their choice. This is just one
of the educational reform efforts proposed in the House for the 1996 appropriations bill
for the District of Columbia. There is also opposition to this bill. One of the most
vocal opponents is Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. He does not want
resources drained from the public schools (Johnston 1995).
The implications of school vouchers on educational institutions across the country will be
determined by the political climate of the federal and state governments. A conservative
political climate has focused for the past 25 years on educational vouchers as a way to
reform schools by offering increased choice for individuals. Those not favoring vouchers
either are committed to defending the status quo for various reasons or fear the
repercussions such a change would make.
Primarily, opponents voice concerns that a voucher system would lead to an elitist
mentality that would broaden the gap between the haves and have nots. Opponents argue
that providing vouchers for school choice would facilitate moves toward private schools.
Since most private schools' tuition would be out of reach for most lower and middle
income families, vouchers would not provide a real economic "ticket" out of public
schools; those left have really have no choice.
Some voucher systems have used specific criteria that allows disadvantaged students to
select schools that would give them greater educational advantages. In many cases the cost
of transportation has been prohibitive, thus making vouchers again economically
unfeasible. Transportation under any voucher system will be difficult and will require
additional funds, planning and guidelines.
A true voucher system may never exist. Traditionally private schools have had the right to
determine their population, curriculum, hiring procedures, admission requirements, and
tuition. If vouchers can be used at private schools, many of the private schools' policies
may be regulated by outside agencies to ensure racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic
segregation does not transpire.
Vouchers may serve as a catalyst for the growing homeschooling movement. Technology
has facilitated access to curriculum and information that were previously the domain of
larger, wealthier school systems. With the allure of vouchers to help defray these costs,
more parents may choose to homeschool their children in states that allow vouchers to be
used in any educational setting.
The discussion of vouchers raises debate of issues such as elitism, school resegregation,
inequities in funding, and constitutional ramifications, (i.e. separation of church and state)
and has now become a topic in most legislatures.
- Public schools will probably respond by experimenting with various kinds of
vouchers, since they are a potential source of revenue and resource that is now being
threatened. Vouchers will be used to pinpoint "problem areas" within that school
- In the current climate, which favorably views using vouchers to stimulate reform
and school choice, vouchers will become a more common practice.
- Critics contend that successful private school programs cannot be replicated and the
threat of "for-profit" franchise education will not take place.
- Theorizing what may happen if vouchers become a reality will give way to practice
which will produce results theorists may not be able to predict.
Educational leaders need to be prepared for the changes that vouchers may
generate in their organizations. As state legislatures debate this issue
and the public increases their demands for reform, educators would be
well-advised to keep abreast of this important issue and its effects on
their schools. Some recommendations for the anticipatory management of
- Vouchers question the constitutionality of separation between church and
state. Educational leaders must stay abreast of the latest court cases and
decisions concerning the First Amendment. In addition, cases concerning
"freedom of choice" school board plans (Green v. County School Board 391
U.S. 430, 88 S. Ct. 1689, 20 L.Ed.2d 716 (1968) need to be carefully
examined to study the legal definition of "choice."
- Vouchers may require increased transportation funds to allow for equal
access to voucher schools. Educational leaders must work with state legislators
to earmark funds for the transportation needs of voucher schools to ensure the
success of all students.
- Voucher programs may have less access to public funds and resources
unless they can attract students. Voucher programs must attract students in
order to have access to public funds and resources. Educational leaders must
prepare to market their schools to remain competitive and retain students. A
clear sense of mission and direction is vital to the strategic planning and future
success of any school.
- Vouchers may segregate schools and lead to a bifurcation of our student
population. Will private schools be expected to adhere to P.L.94-142?
Educational leaders must develop contingency plans to ensure the inclusion of
academically and/or economically disadvantaged students in all voucher
schools. Educational leaders must also be prepared to handle an influx of these
students back into their schools if they do not find success in the voucher
- Vouchers may require increased state regulation of private schools because
of increased use of public funds in these schools. Educational leaders should
serve on policy boards with legislators to determine regulations for voucher
schools. The regulation system would have to be organized to prohibit private
schools from accepting only bright students and denying access to "slow"
- Vouchers may increase parental involvement in schools and the way they
are structured. Public school leaders should initiate programs encouraging
meaningful parental involvement in their schools so that they feel they have a
participatory voice and ownership in their school's direction.
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