Research & Commentary: Vouchers and School Choice

Published September 30, 2015
Voucher programs give parents the ability to choose which school they consider the best for their children by providing a tax-funded voucher or certificate to use toward tuition at participating schools. The goal of these programs is to create competition for students, thereby improving outcomes and lowering costs. The number of school choice programs such as these has risen rapidly over the past 10 years. The Pioneer Institute estimates more than 400,000 students will be educated under private school choice programs in 24 states and the District of Columbia this year.
A new study released by the Pioneer Institute in Massachusetts found school vouchers for low-income students in Massachusetts could provide their families improved access to the private and parochial schools affluent parents already enjoy, while improving educational outcomes for all students, including those who remain in public schools. Voucher programs also reduce school segregation and increase parental satisfaction. 
Ken Ardon and Cara Candal, the authors of the study, recommended school vouchers worth “$6,000 per year for grades K–8 and $8,000 for high school, be offered to 10,000 students with household incomes below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines.” Ardon argues the vouchers would not increase costs for taxpayers. “Taxpayers would be held harmless because state aid to the school districts students come from would be reduced by the amount of the voucher,” said Ardon. “Since the amount of the voucher is less than the average per-pupil spending of about $12,000 per year, overall assistance to districts would be reduced, but per-pupil aid would increase.”
Opponents of parental choice say voucher programs take students and funds from public schools and funnel them to less-regulated private schools. Other critics argue vouchers allow government officials to impose unneeded regulations on private schools, limiting their unique strengths.
School choice proponents argue these concerns are unfounded. They point to years of research demonstrating increased “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” as a result of school choice. In 2011, Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice confirmed nearly all the best available studies on how school vouchers affect academic outcomes for participants (10 of 11 examined) found vouchers improved outcomes for both participants and public schools. A study by Benjamin Scafidi of the Friedman Foundation found as long as a school choice program attaches less than $8,000 to each child who leaves for a private school, districts are in fact left with more money to spend on each remaining child.
The rising cost of education, coupled with diminishing outcomes, has led many parents across the United States to push for increased choice in how their children are educated and how their education tax dollars are spent. School vouchers are one of the many school choice options state and local leaders can use to improve education and transform a failing education system into a successful one.
The following documents offer more information on school vouchers.
Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence
This paper from the Cato Institute looks at the evidence on school choice across the globe. The authors find the efficiency—student achievement per dollar spent on education—of private education provisions was higher than for public education provisions in 23 of the studies surveying foreign countries, and only three of those studies found equal or greater efficiency in 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 Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. Scafidi finds the remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on national average, are variable costs, changing 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 problems 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 vouchers do not benefit participants and hurt public schools, the empirical evidence consistently shows vouchers improve outcomes for participants and those who remain in public schools.
How School Choice Programs Can Save Money 
This Heritage Foundation study of the fiscal impact of voucher programs notes Washington, DC vouchers cost only 60 percent of what the city spends per pupil in government schools. The study estimates if the states with the top eight education expenditures per pupil adopted voucher programs similar to Washington, DC’s, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.
Evaluation of Florida’s Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program 
David Figlio of Northwestern University reports Florida voucher recipients perform roughly in line with a comparable public school student despite a great disparity in funding. Vouchers cost the state only $3,950 per student, while Florida’s public schools spend $7,000 per student per year.
Potential Effects of the Elimination of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program on Public K­–12 School Districts
This open letter published by School Choice Wisconsin notes eliminating Milwaukee’s voucher program would cause the education budget to increase considerably with no beneficial effect on student achievement.
Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After One Year
This U.S. Department of Education study found no primary impact, positive or negative, on student achievement in voucher programs, despite chronic underfunding.
Fear and Privatization
Bruce S. Cooper of Fordham University and E. Vance Randall of Brigham Young University examine public attitudes toward school choice models and find much anxiety among both private and public school advocates. The authors make many common mistakes and assumptions about school choice, but they come to an interesting conclusion: School choice advocates are successfully blurring the lines between the public and private school models by instituting a wide range of different choice plans.
How School Choice Can Create Jobs
Examining five South Carolina counties, Sven R. Larson found school choice programs were associated with gains of up to 25 percent in youth self-employment. Larson writes, “School Choice raises academic achievement and reduces the problems and costs associated with high school dropouts. But it also has a decisively positive impact on youth entrepreneurship and could provide a critical boost for the economies of poor, rural counties.”
School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006
Examining the fiscal effects of school choice programs, Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation Senior Fellow Susan Aud found $444 million in savings during the period studied, $422 million of which was from local school corporations. The direct passage of savings to school districts has a profoundly positive net benefit on districts, but not enough to enable them to compete with the high performance of private or charter schools.
Study Finds School Vouchers Boost College Enrollment for African Americans by 24% 
In an experimental study examining the long-term outcomes of school voucher programs, Matthew M. Chingos and Paul E. Peterson found the percentage of African-American students who enrolled part-time or full-time in college by 2011 was 24 percent higher for those who had won a school voucher lottery while in elementary school and had used their voucher to attend a private school.
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 subject, visit School Reform News at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database at
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