Century-Old Voucher Programs Show Benefits of Choice

Published April 1, 2002

A new report from the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation disproves several misconceptions about publicly funded school choice: namely, that the school voucher concept is new, that its benefits are unproven, and that vouchers work only in densely populated areas with large supplies of schools.

In Vermont and Maine, school vouchers have been in use for over a century through town “tuitioning” programs, which serve students living in rural areas of the New England states. According to the report, the programs have increased school performance in regions where they have produced competition among providers. That competition appears to benefit all students it reaches, without regard to racial and economic differences.

Children from low-income and affluent families alike benefit from the tuitioning programs. For example, the town of Granby in Essex County, Vermont, has a median income of roughly $27,000 and some of the highest poverty levels in the state. Yet the town tuitions out all of its secondary students.

“Few people know that Maine and Vermont have been operating successful school choice programs for a century,” commented Clint Bolick, vice president for the Institute for Justice. “This study demonstrates that Americans have nothing to fear and much to gain by expanding educational options for parents.”

Cost-Effective Approach

In his February 2002 Friedman Foundation report, “The Effects of Town Tuitioning in Vermont and Maine,” Dr. Christopher W. Hammons concludes the programs offer a cost-effective means of improving student achievement. By Hammons’ analysis, the two states would have to spend an additional $909 per pupil per year–a combined total of $300 million–to achieve the same gains in student standardized test scores that the competition of vouchers is providing them today.

“This report indicates that school choice works not only in urban areas but in rural areas as well,” said Hammons. “Moreover, school choice in Maine and Vermont provides better education for children from different economic backgrounds.”

As the United States Supreme Court began to weigh the constitutionality of the Cleveland, Ohio school voucher program amid much fanfare and public debate (see accompanying article, “Parents Rally at U.S. Supreme Court”), the Maine and Vermont programs provide ready evidence that the concept of allowing public funds to follow students to the school of their parents’ choosing is almost as old as the American public education system itself. Maine’s tuitioning program has operated since 1869 and Vermont’s since 1874.

Unlike more recently created voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee, which seek to improve educational opportunities for low-income students within concentrated urban environments, the Maine and Vermont programs were designed to serve rural school districts that, for whatever reason, do not have a public elementary and/or secondary school. High schools enroll the vast majority of tuitioning program participants.

In the tuitioning programs, families can choose to send their children to any public or non-sectarian private school, even one out of state, with the home district covering the cost, up to the state’s average per-pupil public school spending.

Hammons found that areas where the town tuitioning program is most widely utilized enjoy higher test scores at the high school level. “High schools that are more exposed to the town tuitioning process tend to perform better than high schools with little involvement in the town tuitioning process,” he notes. All socioeconomic groups benefit from the competition. Schools that are closer to tuition towns–whether affluent or poor, rural or urban–have higher standardized test scores than schools more distant from tuition towns.

For school choice supporters, the results of the study are not surprising. Richard Komer, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, says the Friedman Foundation report “confirms the common-sense notion that competition works in education the same way it works elsewhere: It delivers higher quality at a lower price.”

Education Freedom Is Key

A study by Dr. Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute provides a national complement to the Friedman Foundation report. (See accompanying article, “Rx for Better Education: More Choice.”)

Greene’s “2001 Education Freedom Index” examines the level of publicly supported education options available to each state’s residents and compares that “freedom” to state student achievement. According to Greene, “where families have more options in the education of their children, the average student tends to demonstrate higher levels of academic achievement.”

For instance, Greene found that a one point increase in the “Education Freedom Index” score for a state would produce the same expected improvement in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math results as increasing per-pupil spending by $2,490, about a 36 percent increase in spending over the current national average.

“It is certainly cheaper to adopt policies that permit greater education freedom,” Greene suggests, “than to try to realize similar test score gains simply by increasing per-pupil spending.”

High levels of education freedom–at least in terms of publicly supported private school options–have existed in Maine and Vermont for over 100 years. The tuitioning programs are so entrenched in these states they are often forgotten in high-profile debates about school choice. Friedman Foundation President Gordon St. Angelo hopes the Hammons report will keep those voucher programs on the public’s radar screen.

“These assertions,” he said, “[coming] from a carefully constructed study, continue, brick by brick, to build a strong case that school choice works.”

Kelly Amis, former program director for The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, is now president of Education Allies, a new nonprofit organization that provides research and advisory services to education donors. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …
Christopher W. Hammons’ February 2002 report for the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, “The Effects of Town Tuitioning in Vermont and Maine,” is available from the Foundation’s Web site at www.friedmanfoundation.org. Dr. Hammons can be reached for comment on his work at 281/649-3270.