With Vouchers, Would Religious Schools Predominate?

Published May 1, 2003

If parents were provided with tax-funded vouchers, or scholarships, so they could freely choose to send their child to a public school, a secular private school, or a religious school, would it lead to a preponderance of religious schools of choice?

In the Cleveland voucher program, 82 percent of the private schools participating in the 1999-2000 school year had a religious affiliation, and 96 percent of participating students were enrolled in religiously affiliated schools.

A recent study of the results of 10 years of voucher use in Sweden suggests the Cleveland outcome is unlikely to be repeated under conditions where the value of the voucher is comparable to per-pupil spending in the public schools and where there is easy entry of new private schools into the marketplace.

Sweden vs. Cleveland

In Cleveland, the $2,500 voucher provides little incentive for secular private schools to participate or establish new schools, leaving participation largely to religious schools where tuition is subsidized by their churches.

By contrast, religious schools in Sweden account for “a small (14 percent) and shrinking share of the total number of independent schools,” report Swedish economists and researchers Mikael Sandström and Fredrik Bergström in a January 2003 report from the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.

In Sweden, parents have the right to choose their child’s school, with independent schools–including religious schools–funded at 85 percent of the average cost per student in the public schools. It is relatively easy to get public funding for an independent school in Sweden. For-profit schools are permitted.

Before the choice plan was instituted in Sweden, it was mainly parents with strong religious convictions who chose the private alternative, a decision the religious schools often aided by accepting voluntary work or donations to reduce the cost of attending.

However, with full choice under a fully funded voucher system, “school becomes a more normal market, where different schools compete through the quality of education by offering special subjects or focusing on children with special needs,” the Swedish team maintained. Corporations run 30 percent of the independent schools, and some companies are expanding rapidly.

“Religious schools will certainly continue to exist, but the market to which they appeal is limited,” asserted Sandström and Bergström.

Estimating Market Share

A 1999 projection by School Reform News estimated U.S. religious schools also would not expand as rapidly as secular private schools if parental choice were implemented. The projection was based on a 1999 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll in which public school parents were asked where they would send their oldest child to school if the government paid the tuition.

Fifty-one percent of respondents chose the same public school, 5 percent chose another public school, 22 percent chose a private school, and 17 percent chose a church-related school.

School Reform News estimated the following education market shares would result if parents were able to make these choices–assuming undecided parents kept their children in their current school:

  • Public schools’ share would drop from 88.7 percent to 54.1 percent.
  • Religious schools’ share would increase from 9.6 percent to 24.7 percent.
  • Secular private schools’ share would increase from 1.7 percent to 21.2 percent.

Although religious schools would educate a much larger number of students than they do today, they would also command a smaller share of the independent school market than is currently the case.

Religious Mission Not a Priority

Such projections do not surprise Brian L. Carpenter, director of leadership development with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who was a Christian school founder and superintendent for 12 years.

While not discounting the importance of the religious mission of Christian schools, Carpenter believes the three main reasons parents choose religious schools are academic performance, safety, and accountability. Secular private schools offering these features would compete effectively against religious schools, he argues.

“I think the Christian school movement fails to realize the primary reason for its success in attracting students in the last 20 years has been its academic performance rather than its religious mission,” says Carpenter.

While having 46 percent of K-12 students in independent schools is very high by present U.S. standards, the Netherlands has 70 percent, the largest share among European nations. That is the result of a historic compromise in 1917, which resolved the long-contentious issue of whether the state or church should have main responsibility for schooling the young. A constitutional amendment that year made it the government’s obligation to fund independent schools on an equal basis with state-run schools, and the market has taken over from there.

In contrast to the debate in the U.S. over separation of church and state, where direct government funding of religious schools is regarded as compromising freedom of religion, “the right of churches to run schools in Europe has often been regarded as a way to uphold freedom of religion,” explained Sandström and Bergström. [emphasis added]

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia. George Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

The January 2003 report by Mikael Sandström and Fredrik Bergström, “School Choice Works! The Case of Sweden,” can be found at the Web site of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation at http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/schoolchoiceworks/swedenstudy0103.pdf. The 32-page report is also available through PolicyBot; search for document #11451.

The School Reform News projection of education market shares was reported in the October 1999 issue. The article, “Estimating the Education Market,” is available on the Internet at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=11181.

The full text of the 1999 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools is available online at www.pdkintl.org/kappan/kpol9909.htm.