An Objective Look at School Vouchers
There’s plenty of jargon out there when it comes to educational policy. One particular concept that is receiving a significant amount of attention these days is school vouchers.
What isn’t receiving much attention, however, is what these vouchers actually are and how they actually work. Unfortunately, with a president and secretary of education who both strongly endorse school vouchers, much of the information surrounding these programs winds up so highly politicized it becomes difficult for the average person to navigate.
Casting the partisan debates aside, there is something to be gained by taking an objective look at school voucher programs and what impact they actually have on students. It is only then that informed judgements can be made about these types of policies and whether or not they have any significant value in improving education for students.
How School Voucher Programs Work?
In most municipalities across the country, students’ addresses determine where they go to school. School voucher programs are designed to allow parents to have additional choices when it comes to the school their child attends.
Traditionally, if a parent wanted their child to receive an education somewhere other than the local public school, they would be left with few options: expensive private institutions, religious schools, or some type of home-schooling. For students in moderate or low-income areas, these options are often too cost-prohibitive to be considered realistic.
That’s where school vouchers come in. In theory, these programs give families a voucher that represents some percentage of the funding that would have been spent by the state to educate their child. This voucher can then be used to either cover or defray the costs of enrolling their child in another school.
There are 25 different examples of these voucher programs currently operating across 14 different states and serving nearly 200,000 American students.
It is worth noting that there are other programs, like government sponsored education savings accounts and tax-credit scholarships, that operate on similar principles. Just like voucher programs, families get government funds to help send their children to schools other than their designated local public schools.
Do School Voucher Programs Work?
In the current political landscape, this is the billion-dollar question. Unfortunately, the simple answer is that there is no simple answer.
For families where the local public schools are struggling to meet students’ needs, vouchers are seen as a life-boat to help connect students with learning environments that can better promote success.
On one hand, there isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest that school voucher programs deliver substantial improvement to students’ overall academic success:
- Milwaukee’s voucher program, started in 1990, has shown limited positive impact in student performance.
- The non-partisan Economic Policy Institute concluded that the benefits of school choice initiatives were limited at best. They went further to suggest that greater benefits could be achieved through efforts offering increased access to early childhood education, supplemental learning opportunities, and improved nutrition programs in public schools.
- The Brookings Institution even points to research that shows cases where vouchers may actually result in lower student performance.
The reality is that there simply isn’t enough evidence suggest that school vouchers are the cure-all for dealing with the problem of low performing schools. For some students, vouchers have clearly provided opportunities that have had a positive impact on their educational careers. For others, they haven’t produced measurable academic gains.
Is It Likely that Vouchers Become National Policy?
Despite endorsements from top federal officials, there are some significant barriers to a nation-wide school voucher system. For one thing, 38 states currently have laws that prevent government funds from being used to pay for religious schools. Any efforts to make vouchers a national program would have to contend with these state laws since a significant portion of the available private school alternative options have religious ties.
Also, there are key logistical challenges to school voucher programs, particularly in rural areas. Among them is the fact that giving students the option and the means to attend a different school only works in areas where there are different (and better) schools available to attend.
School vouchers and programs like them will likely remain part of the educational policy debate for years to come. Therefore, as with all significant educational policy issues that may affect America’s children and students, it is crucial that parents and educators do what they can to sort through the political noise and ensure that they can make their own informed judgements.
Regardless of the side of the debate you may fall on, remember that educational institutions and any decisions made to change or alter them must remain focused on students first.
Sheldon Soper is a New Jersey middle school teacher with over a decade of classroom experience teaching students to read, write, and problem-solve across multiple grade levels. He holds teaching certifications in English, Social Studies, and Elementary Education as well as Bachelor's and Master's degrees in the field of education. In addition to his teaching career, Sheldon is also a content writer for a variety of education, technology, and parenting focused websites. You can follow Sheldon on Twitter @SoperWritings.