Educational Vouchers Revisited

Don Closson


I first became a supporter of educational vouchers over a decade ago when I personally felt the injustice of paying taxes to support our local public schools even though my children were being home-schooled or were attending private schools. Back then, supporters of vouchers were either fans of free-market economist Milton Freeman or were tired of supporting a school system that they were philosophically opposed to. I felt that I had good reasons to support some form of vouchers back then, but unfortunately few people had even heard of such a thing and fewer still thought them a wise component of educational policy.

Times have changed. Many evangelicals who supported vouchers at first have decided that they are a threat to their children's schools, public or private. When a statewide voucher initiative was attempted in California in the mid-nineties, it was suburban voters who turned the tide against the reform movement. Those with children in Christian schools were afraid that government money in the form of vouchers would be followed by government regulations. Those with children in suburban public schools already had educational choice. They chose their children's schools by purchasing a home in the suburbs.

Those who support educational vouchers today are a far more diverse group. There are still many free market conservatives who argue that competition in the educational marketplace will be good for children and for public schools. Large amounts of money have been raised to support vouchers from private sources in an attempt to show the effectiveness of free market competition.

However, there is now grass root support from the African-American and Hispanic communities, those who have suffered the most under the current "one best system" approach. Columnist William Safire recently noted that vouchers make a big difference for black students and encourages private competition to end the near monopoly now held by government schools.{1} Efforts to pass a voucher law in Michigan have corralled the support of former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and seventy-five black pastors.{2}

The typical argument for supporting vouchers has also changed. It is now more likely to be driven by the notion of educational justice for the poor--whose children attend many of our worst inner city schools--than by arguments against the secular bias of the public schools. Voucher policies are making headway when offered to students in schools that are obviously failing and to students who have no other alternative than to attend these low achieving schools.

One thing is certain; the debate over educational choice and vouchers is still a hot one. It represents a major policy difference between recent Republican and Democratic presidential candidates and promises to continue to split conservatives as well as minority communities over what type of educational reform will best serve our most needy students.

Vouchers Today

Attempts to implement educational vouchers in the late eighties and early nineties were primarily in the form of public voucher programs. In other words, public monies raised by taxes would be used to provide educational choice to parents who in turn might use that money to place their children into private schools. Although there were some successes, the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, being most notable, most of these proposals were defeated by voters or by the courts.

Although there are still attempts to implement public vouchers, we have also seen the development of large scale and significantly funded private voucher programs that have caught the eye and imagination of some of the nations wealthiest philanthropists.

John Walton, of Wal-Mart fame, and Theodore Forstmann of Forstmann, Little & Company, decided to offer 1,000 scholarships to low income students in Washington, D.C. With very little publicity they received over 8,000 applications. Sensing a real need, in 1998 they donated $100 million towards a national program that would fund 40,000 scholarships, thus inaugurating the Children's Scholarship Fund. That got people's attention. In fact, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, Martin Luther King III, General Colin Powell, and numerous C.E.O.s from some of America's best known corporations stepped forward to join the organization's board.

Soon the fund had grown to $170 million and in September of 1998 programs were set up in forty cities and three entire states. Later, on Oprah, the CSF offered scholarships to potentially every low-income family in the U.S. By March they had received applications from 22,000 cities and towns from all fifty states. Over 1.25 million applications were eventually received. It should be noted that these were partial scholarships available only to low-income families. Earning less that $22,000 a year, each family would have to supplement the scholarship with an average of $1,000 per student. This response indicates two things about these families. First, there is a strong desire to remove their children from their current schools, and second, they are willing to make a significant sacrifice to acquire a good education for their children.

As Mr. Forstmann has written:

The parents of 1.25 million children put an end to the debate over whether low-income families want choice in education: They passionately, desperately, unequivocally do. Now it is up to the defenders of the status quo to tell them, and the millions they represent, why they cannot have it.{3}

These privately funded vouchers are beginning to provide data on the effectiveness of vouchers. Let's look at some of the findings.

Mounting Evidence

School choice and vouchers have been winning public support from some interesting people. Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, has recently proposed a voucher plan in the Wall Street Journal, and columnist William Safire believes that vouchers might make a difference for black children in our cities schools. However, there is still a need for solid evidence that vouchers help kids to learn.

As of the middle of 1999, privately funded vouchers were being awarded to more than 100,000 students from an investment of over $300 million dollars made by individuals and private organizations.{4} Although a small portion of the total school population in America, it is large enough to begin gathering evidence on the effectiveness of vouchers. Let's consider what has been discovered thus far.

An Indiana University study of Cleveland voucher students found that they experience statistically significant higher achievement scores in language and science. A study of voucher students in New York, Washington, and Dayton, Ohio, found that after two years the average performance of black students was six percent higher than those remaining in the public schools.

Looking at the first district-wide, fully funded private voucher program, Harvard's Paul Peterson found that every child who wanted to enroll in a private school was accepted, refuting the charge of "creaming" off only the best students from the public schools. In fact, another study discovered that school choice in Cleveland provided better racial integration that the public school system had. Studies have also shown that parents of voucher students are more likely to be pleased with their children's schools.

Another interesting development in the battle over vouchers has been the recent release of a new book by John Witte. Witte, the official evaluator of Milwaukee's school choice program, has argued in the past that school choice does not work. However, this new book concludes that Milwaukee's voucher program is "a useful tool to aid low-income families."

Voucher opponents have argued that low-income parents would pick private schools for all the wrong reasons if given the opportunity. Many have argued that athletics, convenience, and religious instruction would be the primary factors determining the schools selected. However, a study of the Horizon program in Edgewood, Texas, discovered that parents picked private schools primarily for academic reasons. Eighty percent said that academic quality, teacher quality, discipline and classroom instruction, were all very important. Less than fifteen percent mentioned that sports programs were a factor.

More importantly, the National Research Council has proposed a large ten-year, multi-district voucher experiment in order to study the long-term benefit for students. Such research is vital to establish once and for all the benefit of real school choice for our most needy students.

Why Vouchers?

In 1998 President Clinton vetoed a federally funded voucher bill that would have given 2,000 scholarships worth up to $3,200 to children from low-income families living in the District of Columbia. Students would have been able to attend any public or private school in the area. At that time, the District of Columbia had one of the highest per pupil spending rates in the country, almost $3,000 more per student than that national average. And yet its scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress tests were the lowest in the nation, and forty percent of their high school students dropped out of school. Eighty-five percent of those who went to college needed an average of two years remedial work before taking college level courses. Why is it that educational choice advocates believe that vouchers will help students in districts like Washington D.C.? Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman has been promoting vouchers since the 1950's. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Friedman points out the advantages to introducing competition to our nation's schools. He makes the obvious point that only a truly competitive educational industry can empower the ultimate consumers of educational services--parents and children. This has occurred time and again in America as it has opened markets to competition. Agriculture, transportation, power, communication, and the Internet are all examples where service and quality have gone up while costs have declined.

Competition would encourage new methods of teaching as well as new types of educational institutions. The only group that would not benefit from competition is the teachers unions who are spending furiously to block legislation supporting vouchers. Good teachers would find themselves in great demand and able to insist on higher salaries. Successful schools, private or public, would have no problem attracting students. Employers would have well-trained employees and there would be less need for remedial courses in higher education. Friedman also argues that the cost of education would decline dramatically. Anytime a monopoly is dismantled, artificially maintained high prices begin to fall and competition that is more efficient begins to lower costs.

One criticism to this model is that schools would have no incentive to accept difficult to teach students. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has suggested a progressive voucher plan that would provide larger vouchers for the most difficult to teach students encouraging both public and private schools to seek a percentage of their students from this pool. Perhaps new institutions would arise that offer new approaches to teaching these high voucher students.

Why go to all this trouble, especially if my son or daughter is in a "good" school? It should reflect our concern as Christians for all children, and particularly for those who are poor.

Educational Freedom

The Manhattan Institute recently released an interesting study on the notion of educational freedom. It investigated how much freedom the fifty states give their residents to obtain the kind of education they want for their children. It turns out that this is a more important issue than one might think.

Why measure educational freedom by state? Our federal system of government has given each state the freedom to establish its own laws regarding the education of its population. In fact, the states vary significantly in their policies creating a wide range of educational freedom. The type of policies that affect educational freedom cover vouchers, charter schools, the deregulation of home-schooling, and the freedom to choose from among existing public schools.

Heading the Institute's "most free states" list are Arizona, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Oregon, and Texas. The least free states are Hawaii, West Virginia, Nevada, Kentucky, Maryland, and Rhode Island. Arizona found itself at the top of the educational freedom list because of its leadership in the charter-school movement. Minnesota and Wisconsin both give parents help to enroll their children in private schools either through vouchers or tax credits. New Jersey and Oregon are home-school friendly, and Texas looks kindly towards both charter schools and home-schoolers.

Hawaii has no charter schools and highly regulates home-schoolers. It also has the distinction of being the most centralized of all the states; the entire state consists of one large school district. All fifty states have made conscious policy decisions regarding the freedom parents have to choose, and it does make a difference. The Manhattan Institute compared the amount of educational freedom with student achievement and discovered that there is a positive correlation. Not surprisingly they found that after controlling for demographics, spending, and other input variables, a state's higher ranking on the index is associated with stronger performance on both the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the SAT. In fact, with an increase in the index of one full point, one could expect a forty-nine point increase in SAT scores and a 5.5 percent increase on the NAEP reading and math tests.

According to the Institute, if South Carolina, with an educational freedom ranking of forty-three out of fifty, were to offer as much educational freedom as Texas one would expect its SAT scores to increase by about forty points. If the study's findings are accurate, this increase could be accomplished without spending billions of new tax dollars, whether to build new schools or for reducing class sizes.

Christians are called upon to love their neighbors, and their neighbors' children, as themselves. It is only reasonable that we seek justice in the education of all our children.


  1. William Safire, "Vouchers Help Blacks" New York Times on The Web, August 31, 2000. (
  2. Paul Gigot, "How - and How Not - To Fight For Vouchers" Wall Street Journal, September 1, 2000. (
  3. Theodore J. Forstmann, "A Competitive Vision for American Education" Imprimis, September 1999, Vol. 28, No. 9, 2.
  4. Fritz Steiger, "Putting Children First" Imprimis, September 1999, Vol. 28, No. 9, 7.

© 2001 Probe Ministries International