What Can We Learn from the Universal Voucher Law in Utah?

Published September 1, 2007

Finally, the nation has a universal voucher plan that will answer all the difficult questions about school choice–or will it?

With the passage of the first such voucher plan in Utah, school choice advocates have been quick to praise it, and researchers are waiting with bated breath to calculate its effects.

However, it’s important to determine exactly what this program can tell us–and more importantly, what it won’t tell us. The ideological debate has largely been settled, yet several research questions remain in terms of vouchers’ effects on public schools, racial and class segregation, and whether a universal voucher system such as Utah’s will transform K-12 education.

Limited Information

Other countries have employed such programs for years. A 2004 study of voucher programs, conducted by Alberto Arenas, evaluated plans in Colombia and Chile. Unfortunately, the Colombian voucher system is a targeted plan that gives vouchers only to poor students.

The Chilean system, on the other hand, is universal. It forces every student to choose a school–making it even more universal than Utah’s plan. But as the authors note, their research offers only a “tentative set of guidelines based on inferences” and thus hardly constitutes a template for how vouchers can be effectively implemented.

Such studies offer few insights into what results we can expect to find if Utah’s voucher law survives the political and constitutional challenges currently pending against it. The state’s unique demographics and the provisions of the proposed plan will make it difficult to draw many firm conclusions from past research or studies conducted abroad.

Unique Plan

If implemented, Utah’s voucher plan will be wholly unique. For one, the plan is universal only in regard to opportunity, since it doesn’t force families to make a choice, as Chile’s plan does. Families can continue to attend their assigned school as if the voucher program didn’t exist.

The Utah plan also has graduated voucher amounts, ranging from $500 for the wealthiest individuals to $3,000 for the most disadvantaged. Vouchers are available only for use in private schools, so only children of families interested in private school, dismayed enough with their current public school, and financially secure enough to make up any difference between the voucher and tuition costs, will use it.

This scenario by no means describes a market-based K-12 education system.

Public Schools’ Quality

Martin Carnoy’s 1998 study of Sweden and Chile’s national voucher programs analyzed the effects they had on traditional public schools. In Sweden, the research suggests, the voucher program “hardly touched public education,” because public schools are generally held in high regard. In Chile, however, private schools were deemed to be better than public schools, and vouchers caused a “flight from public education.”

Carnoy found the effects of vouchers depend on the public’s perceptions of traditional public schools. Public schools in Utah are generally held in high regard, and it appears likely that few Utahns would flee the public school system. Hence, if Carnoy’s findings are credible, it may be difficult for researchers to ascertain vouchers’ possible effects on public schools elsewhere.

As to whether a universal voucher program would lead to stratification among classes and races, Arenas’ Chilean study found racial segregation increased after the program was instituted. This finding may not be applied to Utah easily, however, because it’s a highly homogeneous state. Ninety-four percent of Utahns are white, with a majority of the population practicing Mormonism.

The homogeneity of the state will limit researchers’ ability to determine the degree of stratification stemming from vouchers. Any class stratification has likely already taken place, as families essentially choose their schools when they choose their residences.

Choice Conclusions

The success of any program depends on its ultimate goal. If the goal of the voucher program is simply to provide families with an opportunity to choose a private school, then the Utah plan will certainly shed light on who chooses to take a voucher. Researchers will be able to classify users and non-users and evaluate characteristics of those families.

However, if the voucher amount is too low, then results from studies may be clouded, because the amount limits who chooses. Researchers who want to judge the program’s effect as a catalyst for a market-based K-12 education system will likely be disappointed, since this program will tell us only who chooses based on a set of variables wholly unique to Utah and this plan.

Advocates have been eager to praise the Utah voucher law, and it’s certainly a step in introducing school choice. However, given the state’s demography and the nature of the plan, it may be difficult to generalize any findings beyond Utah.

Nathan Gray ([email protected]) is a doctoral fellow in public policy, Brent Riffel ([email protected]) is deputy director of the Office for Education Policy, and Brian Kisida ([email protected]) is a research associate for the School Choice Demonstration Project, all at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform.

For more information …

Two studies cited in this article are available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for the document numbers indicated below.

“Privatization and Vouchers in Colombia and Chile” by Alberto Arenas, 2004, document #21766

“National Voucher Plans in Chile and Sweden: Did Privatization Reforms Make for Better Education?” by Martin Carnoy, 1998, document #21767.