In his 2011 State of the State address, Governor Chris Christie stated that, across New Jersey, "over 100,000 students are trapped in nearly 200 failing schools." Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval recently characterized his state's education system as "broken." And Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels noted that in the worst districts in his state, half of the children who entered 1st grade in 1999 would not be graduating in 2011. To address these issues, each governor proposed a host of education reforms, in all three cases including the establishment of voucher programs in their states.
In education, voucher programs are government-designed efforts to provide parents with publicly funded tuition vouchers to help subsidize the tuition fees and expenses required to send their children to school (generally, private K–12 schools). These programs take one of two forms: direct government payments to parents to subsidize tuition costs, or programs that give individuals and businesses tax credits for education expenses or for donations to organizations that provide tuition assistance for students entering private schools. Most current programs are limited in scope and targeted to specific audiences, which may include children with special needs, from low-income families, or from schools perceived as performing poorly on state or federal accountability measures.
Currently, 15 states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs or voucher-like tax credit programs in place (see p. 4). These programs are controversial because they involve the transfer of public funds to private, frequently religious, schools and because they bypass public oversight and accountability mechanisms embedded in other government programs. In particular, voucher systems operate outside the sophisticated accountability systems state and federal policymakers and educators have worked hard to implement over the past two decades.
Voucher-like programs have existed in the United States since the mid-1800s. First established in Maine and Vermont, these programs were set up to allow students in towns without public schools to enroll in nearby public or private schools. In this respect, these programs, unlike modern voucher systems, were not intended to supplant public schools; rather, they were initiated to increase access to schools for children in isolated areas. The Maine and Vermont programs require that receiving schools be secular, and legal challenges by modern voucher advocacy organizations to expand the programs to religious schools have been rejected by the supreme courts in both states.
Economist Milton Friedman is credited with generating the modern conception of voucher programs as a mechanism to bring market forces to bear in education. In 1962, he proposed a system that would give parents vouchers to use in their children's education at public, private, for-profit, not-for-profit, parochial, and nonparochial schools (Friedman, 1962).
Ten years later, the federal government established the first modern voucher program, a short-term pilot project in Alum Rock, Calif. That program ended in 1976 with generally unsatisfactory results as theorized outcomes were not realized: the decentralized budget was being recaptured by the school board, competition for students was decreasing, private schools had not joined the program, and parents were failing to move their students to nonneighborhood options (Levinson, 1976).
It wasn't until 1990 that Wisconsin state legislators established a more permanent voucher program in Milwaukee. Shortly thereafter, Ohio created a similar program for students in Cleveland. Since then, a number of different types of voucher programs have been established around the country.
Programs in New Orleans, La.; Cleveland; Milwaukee; and Washington, D.C., are limited in scope to specific cities (as well as by family income and other requirements), while statewide voucher programs for students with special needs have been established in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah. The Arizona and Florida programs ended after the supreme courts in those states ruled that vouchers violated the state constitution.
In part to address constitutional concerns and further separate government programs and religious schools, tuition tax credit programs were established. These programs generally take two forms: individual tax credits or deductions for education expenses (such as in Illinois) or tax credits and deductions for contributions to private tuition-granting organizations, which then transfer the money to qualifying families.
This second type of tax credit program requires the tuition-granting organizations to establish policies for awarding scholarships and may require scholarships to go to specific populations, such as students in poverty or with special needs. It also generally includes provisions that bar the awarding of scholarships back to the individual donors.
Nine states—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—currently have some type of education tax credit program in place. Even though Arizona's program had been found to violate the U.S. Constitution, in a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision (Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn et al, 2011), the majority ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring suit (see the Federal Issues section), and the program remains in place.
Taken together, these voucher and tax credit programs redirect more than $1 billion to private schools each year.
Although a full review of the legal history related to voucher programs is beyond the scope of this brief, it is important to understand the key constitutional issues surrounding these programs, which have in some cases, depending on the state and program design, been found to violate both the federal and state constitutions. These issues include constitutional barriers to state support of religion at both federal and state levels, as well as provision of a system of free public schools at the state level.
In 2002, a split decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 2002) largely established the legality of voucher programs under current interpretations of the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . ."). The justices ruled that voucher programs do not violate the Establishment Clause as long as they have a secular purpose; do not serve to advance religion; directly aid the parents (not religious schools); cover a broad class of beneficiaries; and offer choice regarding religious or nonreligious options, including existing public schools.
This was a major shift from earlier decisions, which did not generally define public schools as part of the nonreligious options unless they were a specific part of the voucher program. As a result of this decision, most of the legal challenges regarding voucher programs have shifted to the state courts.
The one notable exception is the recent Arizona v. Winn decision. As with other tax credit laws, Arizona's law allows individuals and corporations to claim tax credits for donations to nonprofit tuition-granting organizations. The complication in this case stemmed from the fact that many of these nonprofits award their scholarships based on religious criteria, which could be interpreted as advancing religion.
Another complexity in this case related to a taxpayer's standing to sue the state. While taxpayers generally cannot sue a state over the way it spends resources, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed taxpayers to sue if they feel the Establishment Clause is being violated. In deciding this case, the majority of the justices, in a split decision (5–4), ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue, so the program could not be challenged under the Establishment Clause.
The ruling in this case could have far-reaching effects, even beyond public school systems. Because the taxpayers' right to sue was severely limited by the court, state legislators no longer need to be as concerned about federal constitutional lawsuits when designing privatization programs. Indeed, as Justice Elena Kagan noted in her dissent, "the Court's arbitrary distinction [between appropriations and tax expenditures] threatens to eliminate all occasions for a taxpayer to contest the government's monetary support of religion" (slip op. at p. 27). Despite this decision, state constitutions, which are generally much more restrictive than the U.S. Constitution, will still prove challenging for legislators interested in establishing tuition tax credit and voucher programs.
Private School Tuition Programs
At the state level, voucher programs are primarily vulnerable to constitutional charges on two grounds: that they violate prohibitions against using tax funds to advance religion based on the state constitution and that they violate the state mandate to create a uniform system of publicly controlled schools.
Thirty-nine states have language in their constitutions that bars the state from providing aid to private religious schools, which varies from state to state and is generally much stronger than the language found in the U.S. Constitution. While such language does not preclude states from adopting voucher or tax credit programs (for example, the Ohio and Wisconsin programs have survived court challenges), it does make the programs vulnerable to lawsuits and review by the state courts, which is why programs in Arizona and Florida were found to violate their state constitutions. Some state constitutions have provisions barring aid to both sectarian and nonsectarian private schools, effectively prohibiting those states from offering voucher programs.
In addition to restrictions related to religious schools, many state constitutions require a system of common public schools, public control of education, or common school funds, limiting the extent to which state governments can aid nonpublic schools of any type. Based on a review of state constitutions and relevant case law, the Institute for Justice (a pro-voucher advocacy group) suggests that state constitutions effectively preclude vouchers systems in at least 18 states and bar tax credits in Massachusetts and Michigan (Mellor & Roman, 2007).
Public and Policymaker Opinion
Respondents to public polls regarding vouchers can be interpreted as opposing vouchers and tax credits or supporting increased access to private schools at public expense, depending on how the questions are worded (Clowes, 2004; Lorence & Dworkin, 2008). Despite these competing poll results, when given the direct option through ballot initiatives, voters have consistently and overwhelmingly rejected voucher programs. Since 1972 there have been at least 12 such initiatives, all of which have failed.
In 2000, initiatives in California and Michigan failed by 2:1 margins. In a more recent effort in Utah, voters effectively overturned a law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor that would have established a statewide voucher program. Statewide, 62 percent of voters rejected the program, and it also failed in every county in the state.
Although it is harder to gauge policymakers' attitudes and opinions related to vouchers, research published in 2002 gathered responses from 89 state legislators across six states that had voucher programs in place or had considered voucher program legislation. While the research showed that the respondents generally accepted the market arguments used by voucher advocates, it also found they were sympathetic to equity concerns and funding issues raised by voucher opponents. Perhaps most relevant, it found that among a range of policy options for improving public schools, respondents did not rate vouchers highly (Laitsch, 2002).
Evaluations and Research
Supporters of voucher programs suggest that giving students the option to attend private schools will significantly improve their academic outcomes. However, as with the research on public opinion, the research on voucher outcomes is mixed and frequently aligns with the ideological dispositions of the researchers or organizations funding the research (Belfield & Levin, 2005; Metcalf, 1998). Legislation establishing the current voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., also included an evaluation component, and all of the evaluations returned mixed results regarding student achievement (Plucker, Muller, Hansen, Ravert, & Makel, 2006; Witte, Sterr, & Thorn, 1995; Wolf et al., 2009).
Additionally, these evaluations faced a variety of methodological challenges regarding student attrition and tracking, assessment changes, confounding choice options, and so forth that make these mixed findings more difficult to interpret. Research looking at pilot voucher programs in New York; Dayton, Ohio; and Florida also found that vouchers had little or no significant effect on student outcomes (Barrow & Rouse, 2008; Levin, 1998). Indeed, some voucher proponents now conclude that the improvements predicted to be caused by voucher programs are not likely to be realized (Dodenhoff, 2007).
The lack of any significant effect on academic outcomes is perhaps not surprising, because voucher programs are not intended to change the education experiences of students. They do not target changes in instruction, learning, learning conditions, or curriculum; rather, they simply change the manner in which the money supporting education programs is allocated.
Recent research into achievement differences between schools funded through public and private systems suggests little difference in the outcomes among comparable students (Lubienski & Lubienski, 2006; Lubienski, Lubienski, & Crane, 2008; Wenglinsky, 2007). This absence of definitive academic benefits to students using vouchers may be why voucher proponents have shifted their emphasis toward the more nebulous "parental satisfaction" as a primary measure of success.
Beyond the effect on student academic achievement, vouchers may also more broadly affect communities and the larger society. Again, the research on social outcomes related to the use of private school vouchers paints a complex picture. Research shows that the parents who participate in voucher systems are generally more satisfied with their choice of school (Wolf, 2008). However, it also suggests that parents are likely to choose schools for religious, not academic, reasons (Denessen, Driessena, & Sleegers, 2005; Ji & Boyatt, 2007).
When he proposed vouchers in 1962, Friedman also warned that voucher programs might result in a stratification of communities along religious, ethic, or economic lines. Although he then dismissed these concerns as lacking evidence, research from other countries where vouchers are much more widely used and firmly entrenched in the education system suggests that the stratification does occur (Levin, 1998).
Research on Chile's voucher system has found that the system has exacerbated inequities, with public schools serving more disadvantaged, low-income, and indigenous students than private voucher schools (Elacqua, 2009; Elacqua & de Gobierno, 2006; González, Mizala, & Romaguera, 2004). Additionally, within voucher schools there is further stratification linked to differences in tuition levels (Elacqua, 2009; Elacqua & de Gobierno, 2006).
Recent research looking at outcomes in Sweden also found that choice policies resulted in a large increase in social and economic stratification (Wiborg, 2008). In the United States, econometric research and research on other forms of school choice (charters and open enrollment) suggests that "choice" programs in general may result in greater economic and ethnic stratification (Bifulco, Ladd, & Ross, 2009; Brunner, Imazeki, & Ross, 2010; d'Entremont & Gulosino, 2008; Koedel, Betts, Rice, & Zau, 2010).
One concern regarding vouchers expressed by private schools and their advocates is that public aid will ultimately result in pressures for greater regulation of these schools as governments seek greater accountability for the use of public funds. Evidence from Wisconsin suggests this may be the case. Among other regulations, Wisconsin Act 28, signed into law in 2009,
- Requires private schools participating in the Milwaukee voucher program to adopt specific curricular standards and administer all assessments mandated for the state's public schools;
- Adds requirements related to private school graduation standards and grade promotion;
- Adds specific education and qualification requirements for private school personnel;
- Specifies minimum instructional hours students must receive;
- Defines mandated reporting requirements; and
- Adds requirements related to parent meetings with the private school governing boards (Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, 2009).
Such increased regulation significantly alters the current relationship between public and private school systems and may have far-reaching implications for structural reform.
In addition, changes in state policies and priorities frequently result in uncertainty for private schools and their students participating in voucher programs. Students in the Florida and Arizona programs that were found unconstitutional were faced with the sudden withdrawal of funds that had supported their attendance at private schools. Similarly, changes in the payment frequency for students using vouchers in Georgia's program caused disruption, as funding delays meant that schools and parents needed to come up with additional funding on short notice. Such challenges highlight the fact that voucher programs are not part of a free system of public schools—rather, they are individual programs that are subject to the vagaries of state policies and politics.
Envisioned as a mechanism for increasing market competition and improving system performance in 1962, vouchers may be an education reform whose time has passed. Since Milwaukee launched the first modern voucher program in 1990, small-scale implementations have spread across a handful of states. To bypass constitutional restrictions on state support of religion, advocates have also established tuition tax credit programs.
Despite 20 years of debate in legislatures and state and federal courts, no definitive agreement on the constitutionality of such programs exists. When decisions are rendered, they are contentious and frequently interrupt the programs in place and disrupt the lives of the students and families in those programs.
Twenty years of research has also done little to clarify the effectiveness of these programs as academic interventions, and significant research has identified serious concerns regarding the likelihood that communities using vouchers will become more stratified along religious, economic, and ethnic lines, breaking down the multicultural fabric of our society.
An inherent lack of public accountability in voucher and tax credit programs has led investigators to make significant claims of abuse of public funds (Borsuk, 1999; Gabrielson & Reese, 2009) and resulted in increased regulation of the private sector (Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, 2009). Intended to strengthen private education options, vouchers and tax credits may conversely erode the independence of the nation's private schools.
Research looking at the values and attitudes related to school improvement and vouchers suggests that policymakers have a much greater interest in strengthening public schools than in turning to a semiprivatized system of voucher schools (Haselkorn, & Harris, 1998; Laitsch, 2002). New programs for teacher training and preparation, early childhood education, strengthened curricula, and new standards and accountability frameworks all hold the potential for a much stronger and more direct effect on student education outcomes.
As policymakers look to improve education in the coming years, further efforts to privatize the K–12 education system through expanding voucher and tax credit programs seem to be misdirected.
For a list of references for this issue of Policy Priorities, check out the issue online atwww.ascd.org/publications/newsletters/policypriorities/vol17/num02/References.aspx.
Dan Laitsch is an assistant professor and director of the Centre for the Study of Educational Leadership and Policy at Simon Fraser University in Surrey, B.C., Canada.
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