Issues Challenging Education CLOUDS AND SUN

Vouchers: An Initiative for School Reform?

Beverly Browne
Pamela Kinsey-Barker
Direka Martin

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 educational leaders.

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 Chapter 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 federal level.

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, 1985).

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 organizations:

  1. All government funding must have a secular purpose.

  2. Its primary effect must not be the advancement of religion.

  3. It must not entangle the state excessively in church affairs.
According to Fulton, (URL: "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..."

Driving Forces

  • 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" (Berliner, 1995).

  • The Religious Right ( URL: 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 values.

  • 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.

  • Milwaukee 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 district.

  • 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 are:

  • 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 system.

  • 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" students.

  • 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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Chubb, J. & Moe, T. (1990). Politics, markets, and America's Schools. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Cobb, C. W.(1992). Response schools, renewed community. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 378 688)

Daily Report Card. (1995, November). Education commission of the states and the national education goals panel. Vol.5, No. 64. Available [On-line]:

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Johnston, C. (1995). D.C. budget bill includes school voucher plans. Education Week, Vol. XV(10), p. 19.

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