Research & Commentary: The Best, Most Recent Voucher Research

Published September 6, 2012

In 2011, researcher Greg Forster examined all the highest-quality research available on voucher programs; he found 10 of 11 studies demonstrated vouchers benefit students, and the 11th showed participation made little difference to voucher students.

By September 2012, several new high-quality voucher studies have bolstered his conclusion that vouchers are among the best-demonstrated policies for benefiting students socially and academically while saving significant tax expense.

School reform opponents accuse vouchers of leeching students, and therefore finances, from government schools. They also say private schools, not as regulated as government schools, could more easily conduct all manner of financial and educational malfeasance with taxpayer dollars and children’s minds. Many also express concern that allowing more students to attend schools of choice will segregate students by race or family income and dilute a common culture. Libertarian critics charge vouchers are likely to lead to intrusive government regulation of private schools, thus diluting private schools’ excellence.

School choice supporters respond that all the best research available to date demonstrates those assertions are all groundless. Research has consistently demonstrated vouchers and school choice increase high school graduation rates, college attendance rates, achievement test scores, parental satisfaction, school safety and discipline, tolerance of other cultures, racial integration, and civic engagement. Every voucher program also has saved vast amounts of taxpayer dollars. School vouchers first came into existence 22 years ago, and private schools have not been overrun with government regulations or fraud. Where fraud has occurred, it has been isolated and comparable to fraud perpetrated within government schools.

School choice offers families equal access to high-quality schools that meet their widely diverse needs and desires. Instead of unjustly condemning millions of children to failing and dangerous schools because their parents cannot afford private tuition, vouchers give all families the same opportunity to meet each child’s unique education needs. Vouchers also end the injustice of forcing parents to pay both in taxes and in tuition for school choice.

The following documents offer more information on the latest high-quality voucher research.


A Generation of School-Voucher Success
African-American students in New York were 24 percent more likely to attend college if they won a scholarship to attend private school, explain researchers Paul Peterson and Matthew Chingos in a Wall Street Journal op-ed about their recent study. Voucher students’ attendance at selective colleges more than doubled. These impacts are especially striking given the modest costs of the intervention, the researchers note: only $4,200 per pupil over a three-year period. This indicates taxpayers will save money if states establish more voucher programs.

School Choice and Religious Freedom
Vouchers are a vital step forward for religious freedom, writes Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He cites three central reasons: Equality under the law requires treating religious people and institutions the same as nonreligious people and institutions; denying people the ability to raise their children according to their consciences undermines religion; and private schools are far better at inculcating civic and moral virtues because these benefit from religion foundations.

Vouchers Breathe New Life Into Shrinking Catholic Schools
For the first time in decades, Catholic education in several major cities is showing signs of life thanks to expanding voucher programs, outreach to Hispanic Catholics, and donations from business leaders, reports the Wall Street Journal. In 2012, 2 million children attended Catholic schools, down 1.7 percent from last year but less than the average yearly decline of 2.5 percent over the past decade. Students at Catholic schools generally boast better test scores and graduation rates than those at public schools.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave, such as for a school choice program. Scafidi finds the remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on national average, are variable costs, ones that change directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, he notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal disasters for government schools.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers
Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice collected the results of all available empirical studies using the best available scientific methods to measure how school vouchers affect academic outcomes for participants, and all available studies on how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Contrary to the widespread claim that vouchers do not benefit participants and hurt public schools, the empirical evidence consistently shows vouchers improve outcomes for participants and public schools.

The Effect of School Choice on Intrinsic Motivation and Academic Outcomes
Two Ivy League researchers use random assignment, the gold standard of research, to investigate the effects of public school choice on students who live in a low-income, poorly performing urban school district. They conclude that students, particularly young men entering high school, given the chance to attend a school their parents choose, are far less likely to be truant even before they transfer to their new school, and that students make “substantial” test score gains after gaining entrance to charter and magnet schools of choice. “Our results contribute to current evidence that school choice programs can effectively raise test scores of participants,” the authors conclude.

The Effects of School Vouchers on College Enrollment
Vouchers boost black students’ college enrollment rates by 24 percent and double student attendance at selective colleges, conclude researchers Paul Peterson and Matthew Chingos in the first study to track voucher students from kindergarten to college using the gold standard of research, random assignment, to compare students who won a voucher lottery with similar students who didn’t.

The Comprehensive Longitudinal Evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
Patrick Wolf summarizes years of long-term, legislatively mandated scientific evaluations of Milwaukee’s school vouchers, the oldest such program in the country, largely conducted by researchers who have led or participated in nearly every major field study of school vouchers in the United States. These repeated, rigorous evaluations have consistently found the program has never caused any measurable harm to students, and in several significant ways has benefitted them and neighboring students, including: higher high school graduation rates, college enrollment rates, and college completion rates; higher reading achievement; higher numbers of enrolled disabled students than previously reported numbers (up to 16 percent); higher student achievement in neighboring public schools; and significant taxpayer savings.

Independent Schools and Long-Run Educational Outcomes—Evidence from Sweden’s Large Scale Voucher Reform
In this 2012 study, researchers Anders Bohlmark and Mikael Lindahl examined the performance of students who used vouchers to attend one of the nearly 400 independent schools in Sweden. They found school choice raised student performance regardless of student demographics; competition was the central driver of student and school improvements; school choice did not increase education spending; and it took time for reforms to begin working. They also found the results were not biased by pre-voucher trends in student performance.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].