The Controversy of School Vouchers in States

The concept of ‘School Vouchers’ can be traced back to Milton Friedman –the 1976 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Friedman proposed a “Universal voucher of equal worth for each child who attended school”. Today, this idea is emerging in many states, although it is still in its developing stages. Being in existence since the 1950s, the concept of school vouchers in the United States has weathered many storms and challenges to reach the promising stage it is today. The skepticism of taxpayers who feel that their dollars in tax money are being diverted to fund private schools instead of assisting the public schools is one of the biggest issues with school vouchers (Kahlenberg 2003).

An interesting assertion posed by Kahlenberg is that government money is not given without strings attached; that the government is giving the private schools money through the school vouchers program as a way of trying to exercise control and manipulation through the backdoor. But the central theme is that a sizeable proportion of American taxpayers are suspicious of the key objectives of school vouchers program. The first state-funded school voucher system begun in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1990 (Holland 2001). In 1995, a federal bill proposed the setting up of pilot school voucher programs in 26 US cities.

The controversy of school vouchers emerges between their proponents –who are convinced that the programs are the only way to go to save public schools from imminent collapse due to non-performance, and their critics –who on the other hand, are suspicious of the school vouchers, arguing that the program undermines the constitutional principle of severance between church and state, in addition to undermining the values and health of American democracy.

This research emphasizes the benefits of school vouchers using the experiences and available data from the states of Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, and California. In this regard, the popularity and preference of this program shall be examined, with an emphasis on the context of the aforementioned states. Conformity to established standards for both the private and public schools in as far as the school voucher program shall also be assessed, along with the issue of granting vouchers to low-income families.

Research Question

What arguments can then be used to promote school voucher programs in states so that voters support them?

Literature Review

A school voucher is synonymous with a certificate issued out to a parent by the government in a predetermined sum. The amount represented in the certificate is equivalent to tax dollars being collected from American taxpayers for education purposes (Weil 2002). Parents are offered the leeway to present the certificate to the school of their choice rather than being restricted to the assigned public school. This arrangement is a plausible welcome to millions of parents who have witnessed their children caught between the doldrums of deteriorating educational standards and the rhetoric of educational reforms. Change in the educational setup is indeed needed; and it is needed now through the introduction of programs such as the school voucher.

According to Weil (2002) proponents and critics of the school vouchers across America may have multifaceted agendas with extremely diverse ideological orientations, both conservatives and liberals. But when it comes to educational matters, most rally behind the neo-liberal belief that the educational distinction, efficiency, student achievement capability, and quality will only be realized not by public schools but by educational marketplace. This assertion argues the case for education vouchers, as it is only through them that education marketplace may be realized. Parents get an opportunity to take their children to well-performing schools, effectively inducing the non-performing schools into action so that they may also attract students (Rees 2009). It is publicly acknowledged that education standards in American public schools have declined drastically and for this reason, there is a dire need for the introduction of such a system to stimulate performance and accountability in the schools (Hubband 2007). Such an arrangement will introduce competition between private and public schools, thereby providing an inducement for the school systems to improve their educational standards (Hough 2007). According to Hough school vouchers are more beneficial in that they act to localize liability instead of subjecting public schools to perpetual government standards.

Available studies reveal that school vouchers in the United States have indeed assisted children from poor and minority backgrounds to improve their education. For instance, a recently concluded two-year study of a school voucher system designed to assist children from poor families in New York City, Ohio, and Washington D.C. conducted by a combined team of experts from University of Wisconsin, Harvard, and Georgetown University revealed that academic performance of children of African-American descent who used school vouchers to transfer from a public school into a private one showed significant improvement (Hubband 2007). Previously, A Gallup poll on African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minority groups showed that 72 percent of African-Americans respondents expressed support for the school vouchers mainly due to falling educational standards in public schools. 65 percent of the Hispanic respondents also favored the system for similar reasons. These statistics suggest that the school voucher system has the sublime benefit of assisting low-income families to get the resources needed to gain access to private schools, notwithstanding the fact that it offers them greater parental involvement and equality of opportunity (Hough 2007). It therefore follows that the educational standards across America can be considerably improved if concerted efforts are made to support the school vouchers program.

Authors like Chubb and Moe (1990), Paul (2009), Pusey (2009), Stanley (2009) etc. consider in their works all the pros and cons of the voucher system in an attempt to bring out the arguments and measures that could be taken to promote school vouchers programs in states and gain voters’ support. Factors such as: the standardization of criteria, the maintenance of public school funding, better quality of schools, and improved academic achievement will encourage voters to support school voucher programs in states. This study will attempt to emphasize the benefits of school vouchers using experiences and quantitative empirical data from Florida, California, Ohio and Wisconsin.


Voters’ support for school vouchers programs is based on the vouchers’ ability to localize accountability and performance in American public schools.

Data & Methodology

Study Design

The study utilized a quantitative research design to generate descriptive information about American school vouchers programs and how they were attempting to localize accountability and performance to warrant support from the voters. According to Hopkins (2000), the aim of quantitative research is to determine the association between one item (independent variable) and another (outcome or dependent variable). In this case, the voters formed the independent variable as the study’s scope was to come up with various promotional arguments that could see the voters throw their weight behind the school vouchers programs. The dependent variables comprised of concepts that were directly affected by the school vouchers, including competition, conformity to standards, low-income families, and performance improvement.

Data Collection

Data used for this study was compiled from previous studies that had been conducted on school vouchers in America. Quantitative data was specifically compiled from empirical studies comprising of the following:

  • The ICR survey was conducted from July 17-21, 2002, among 1,011 American adults. The study concerned itself with collecting empirical data on such issues as granting vouchers to low-income families, public school funding, conformity to standards, and popularity of the school vouchers among Americans (ICR, 2002). The result carried a three-point error margin, either positive or negative.
  • The ABC News poll was conducted by telephone among a random sample of 1,017 American adults between July 10- 14 2002. The study concerned itself with evaluating voters’ support for school vouchers in relation to maintaining public school funding and issues of low-income parents (ABC 2002). The results carried a margin error of plus or minus three percentage points.
  • The CNN/USA TODAY/ GALLUP poll was conducted among a random sample of 1,018 Adult Americans from January 5-7 2001. Among other things, the survey dwelt on evaluating the perceptions Americans held regarding the school voucher’s ability to improve performance in schools, and their preference of the vouchers system (Holland 2001).



Foremost, school voucher programs increase the competition between the public and private schools. Competition is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for any development and quality improvement (Pusey 2009). Milton Friedman in 1950 argued that the school voucher system would bring about a climate of competition that would improve schools and occasion cost-effective measures (Weil 2002). In respect of this, the idea of the free market at schools that are currently dominated by the bureaucracy should also be considered (Chubb and Moe 1990). Public schools cannot effectively compete with private ones due to high-level political interference. This intrusion, according to Chubb and Moe comes from political institutions that govern the public schools namely, the school boards, district offices, and the education superintendents. As such, the concept of market economy at schools for public schools will always be affected as these ‘political’ institutions only serve to suppress student educational performance, increase bureaucracy, and weaken the schools’ independence (Olson 1990).

Without autonomy there can be no competition. A study conducted in 1984 in over 500 public and private schools involving over 20,000 students and teachers revealed that school autonomy from external bureaucracy was crucially important in determining schools’ effectiveness. The researchers found out that successful schools experienced an average of 35 percent less interference from school administrators than less successful schools. Only 9 percent of private schools reported being constrained bureaucratically in staffing and organization (Olson 1990). Such bureaucratic hurdles facing public schools can be successfully handled by the school vouchers as they give parents the right to decide on the educational fate of their children (Weil 2002). The majority of Americans favor the school vouchers. A survey conducted by CNN revealed that around 54 percent of Americans supported vouchers as a way of improving public school system (Holland 2001). The percentages are shown below, in figure 1.

Percentage of Americans who prefer school vouchers
Figure 1: Percentage of Americans who prefer school vouchers

In the same vein, independence of public schools from bureaucratic administration will ensure that they compete on the same level ground with private schools further improving the quality of education (Stanley 2009). Certain share of governmental control and funding should be preserved to ensure equal opportunities for both private and public schools. Since private schools receive their funds in form of tuition fees, the government should ensure that public schools also benefit from a certain percentage of government funding to effectively manage their own activities (Chu 1997). A poll conducted in 2002 by ABC News Polls among 1,017 adults revealed that majority of Americans supported the school vouchers on low-income parents but not at the expense of public school funding. 50 percent were in support of the voucher program for the low-income earners but only 28 percent supported the vouchers if they meant less money for public schools (ABC News 2002). This is an interesting observation, which shows that voters can actually support the school voucher program if funding for public schools is retained. The statistics are covered below in figure 2.

Public school funding and voters support for school vouchers
Figure 2: Public school funding and voters support for school vouchers

Perhaps it is prudent to analyze the Florida experience to consolidate the point that school vouchers can indeed increase competition in schools across America and help raise their academic standards. The Governor of Florida, Mr. Jeb Bush has been a long-time campaigner of the school voucher program. Dubbed the “education governor,” Mr. Jeb had established an ambitious program named the A+ Opportunity Scholarship Program, which saw school vouchers being handled to parents with children in failing schools to take them to other public and private schools (Bowen, Bragdon, Fortin, & Moddy 2007. Students automatically became eligible when the public schools they had been assigned receive two “F” grades for four consecutive years, including the current one.

Under the program, parents were given the leeway to choose to perform public schools or appropriate private schools if the public schools assigned to their children were failing (Florida Department of Education 2007). The program was halted by the 2006 Supreme Court ruling citing constitutional violations, but not before it had benefited hundreds of bright Florida school children from failing public schools. After the passage of the legislation, children assigned to failing public schools can only transfer to higher-performing public schools but not to private schools. Around 71 percent of African Americans and 17 percent of Hispanic students benefited under the OSP program. Additional statistics are included in figure 3.

Race/ Ethnicity in relation to opportunity Scholarship program in Florida
Figure 3: Race/ Ethnicity in relation to opportunity Scholarship program in Florida

The program also helped instill accountability and performance in the failing public schools. The school vouchers frightened the school administrators into action due to the dread of private-sector competition (Stanley 2009). However, this testimony can be used to show American voters that indeed school voucher programs can help uplift educational standards, performance, and accountability in American schools.

Conformity to Standards

In the light of the emerged competition, both private and public schools should be placed in the same conditions and should conform to the same requirements. The primary driving force to the establishment of American educational standards was the desire to assure that all students gain access to schools that offer balanced high-quality education (Ravintch & Vinovski 1995). But without the introduction of the school voucher program, this may as well remain a pipe dream to thousands of children from poor backgrounds that may never acquire the opportunity of joining prestigious private schools despite their levels of brilliance. There has to be a way by which both public and private schools conform to standards. Since both the funding of public schools and the voucher programs in private schools are funded by the state, the equal accountability demands established for both private and public schools put them in equal conditions –private schools are thus accountable for the admissions of students using the voucher program, which helps prevent bureaucracy and discrimination (Feinberg and Lips 2006).

But the issue of conformity to Standards is further complicated by the fact that private schools are under no obligation to admit a student based on grades and talent even after receiving the taxpayer’s funded school vouchers. In the ICR survey conducted from July 17-21, 2002, majority of the respondents (56.1%) felt that private schools should conform to standards by accepting all students who apply regardless of grades or talents, against 36.9 Percent who felt that they should be allowed to choose which students to admit (ICR 2002). Almost two-thirds (63.4%) felt that private schools should not be given any leeway to choose the students to admit as this amounted to non-conformity of standards. The study involved 1,011 adults and had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The rest of the figures are included in Table 1, below.

Table 1: Conformity to Standards

Should private schools be required to accept all students who apply regardless of grades, talents, and other factors, if the schools are benefiting from the school vouchers?

N= 1,011 Total (%) Male




Household Income (‘000) Race






Should accept all 56.1 57.3 54.9 55.8 54.6 53.8 60.6 54.9 63.7
Should be allowed to choose 36.9 38.5 35.4 37.0 39.4 40.4 35.0 37.3 32.7
Don’t know 6.8 4.1 9.3 7.1 6.0 5.8 4.4 7.5 3.6
Refused 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.3

The best example that can be used to show that school vouchers increase educational standards in American schools is the Ohio 2005 Education Choice Program. The state of Ohio is deeply committed to school choice programs in general, and specifically to school vouchers. The Ohio Educational choice program, commonly referred to as EdChoice came into existence after the HB66 budget bill became effective on June, 30, 2005 (O’Neil 2007). Its predecessor, the Cleveland Scholarship Pilot Program had been a success. EdChoice provides 14,000 vouchers of about $4250 for lower grade students and up to $5000 for high school students for use in chartered private schools. Eligibility depends on whether the school to which a student has been assigned can be rated as an “academic emergency” for three previous consecutive years by the Ohio Department of Education (O’Neil). The EdChoice Program provides students with academic performance and improvement opportunities; and their parents with a wider choice of schools of equal level (Ohio Department of Education 2009).

Issues of conformity must be followed to the letter for the school choice programs to achieve the projected success. For instance, nonconformity to set standards on the part of the private schools saw the number of students applying for EdChoice Program fall to 561 out of a possible 14,000 available vouchers that had been allocated by the state’s legislature. This was due to a general rule that required students to apply first and be admitted by the chartered private school before submitting application to be considered for a voucher by the Department of Education (O’Neil 2007). Majority of the students could not meet the criteria set by the private schools. The standardization of criteria for both public and private school students is therefore of paramount importance. All said and done, it has been explored that school voucher programs enhance conformity to standards.

Granting Vouchers to Low-Income Families

Further on, the issues of poor and low-income families should be considered in the educational context. The voucher programs present the students from low-income families with the wider range of educational opportunities (Feinberg and Lips 2006). The school voucher programs have enabled many low-income children to enroll in schools of their choice, including private religious schools. This has boosted their opportunities of acquiring quality education away from the failing public schools (Beales 1994). The public school voucher program is complemented by the burgeoning private voucher programs to serve the needs of children from low-class families. The private vouchers, usually worth between $ 1,000 to 2,000, are provided to these families to assist them attend private schools of their choice. Their parents provide the balance of the tuition fees (Owens-Fink 1996). The rationale behind the school voucher system is that, majority of public schools in the US are funded by property taxes. Since low-income neighborhoods attract less property tax, many schools within such neighborhoods will be underfunded. Underfunded public schools fail to attract talented teachers and are often located in crime-prone areas, significantly affecting the educational performance of students residing in the areas (Political Base 2008). As such, the school voucher program is their only rescue towards a better life.

According to the 2002 ICR Survey, the concept of granting education vouchers to low-income families received support from 51.3 percent of the respondents. It was more supported by low-income earners who are expected to be the chief beneficiaries of such project as 57.9 percent of respondents who received under $25,000 per annum were in support of the school vouchers. Only 47.6 percent of respondents receiving over $ 75,000 per annum approved of the vouchers. However, the school voucher programs found relative appeal across races with 50.2 percent of the white population and 58.9 percent of African-Americans approving the vouchers. This is a strong argument for the voters to consider supporting the school vouchers nationwide. They are supported across board. The rest of the statistics are included in Table 2.

Table 2: Majority of Vouchers by Low-Income Students

  • Do you support or oppose providing parents in low-income families with tax money in the form of school vouchers to help pay for their children to attend private or religious schools

N= 1,011

Total (%) Male




Household Income (‘000) Race






Support 51.3 52.4 50.2 57.9 55.5 42.0 47.6 50.2 58.8
Oppose 39.6 39.4 39.8 32.6 39.4 47.6 47.6 40.7 34.8
Don’t Know 8.3 6.6 9.8 9.5 4.7 4.8 4.8 8.6 6.3
Refused 0.9 1.7 0.1 0.4 2.5 0.5

School vouchers aimed at assisting students from low-income families were first used in Milwaukee in 1975 (Political Base 2008). Today, a privately funded voucher program by the name of Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE) compliments the state-funded Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) in the task of assisting children from poor households enroll in schools of their choice where they continue to benefit immensely from quality education. MPCP handles the children’s vouchers for full fees while PAVE only pays half of tuition money (Beales 1994). According to Owens-Fink (1996), the school voucher system in Milwaukee has greatly satisfied parents of the children who benefit from the program to a point where the state legislature in conjunction with the Governor has had to extend the program to cater to students in private and religious schools. However, first preference is always given to children from low-income households. Presently, almost 26 percent of students in Milwaukee benefit from either the PAVE or MPCP voucher programs. This is yet another eye-opener of the viability of the school vouchers in improving performance and accountability in American schools.

Improved Academic Achievement

As mentioned before, school vouchers have been known to improve performance by instilling competition between public and private schools. School vouchers re-convey the flow of education funding, channeling it to the student’s individual family households rather than to school administrators and districts (Coulson 1998). This gives the parents the opportunity to take their children to public or private schools of their choice. In selecting the preferred school, most parents consider the quality of education offered in that particular school (Beales 1994). The underperforming schools are forced to reform and start competing with the others or risk losing their student population. Furthermore, the scholarship vouchers are offered on the understanding that parental guidance and competition among private and publicly owned schools will improve educational performance for all children (Coulson 1998). Administrative efficiency is also guaranteed by the school voucher program through minimizing bureaucracy, thereby increasing competition between the schools – both public and private (Lips & Feinberg 2007).

A recent in-depth and wide-ranging study conducted by The Friedman Foundation indeed reveals that school vouchers improve educational achievement in public schools. Titled “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on How Vouchers Affect academic performance in public schools,” it made use of all available empirical data on how the voucher system affects public schools. The results of the study were a real boost to school vouchers in that 16 out of 17 empirical studies analyzed confirmed that vouchers had indeed improved the education standards in primary schools (Baklinski 2009). The study made use of empirical research conducted in several states including some states analyzed in this research (Ohio and Wisconsin). Interestingly, the study revealed that public schools that frequently received more vouchers reported higher gains in language, mathematics, and science scores. According to Murray (2008), the competition introduced by the school voucher programs is rather beneficial as studies show that voucher students improve their results in class.

California introduced five bills for parental choice in 2008 that provide for the development of educational competition as the main instrument of improving the educational system efficiency (Murray 2008). The bills were also aimed at giving a greater parental choice and control of their children’s education by deciding on where to send them to school, thereby freeing them from unsafe and failing schools (Russin 2008). Although state legislators failed to agree on one of the school choice bills thereby deferring the whole process by another year, the bills offered yet another opportunity to prove that indeed school vouchers could help introduce competition that could help reform failing and crime-invested public schools in the state of California.


Concluding, arguments presented throughout this research demonstrate the benefits that educational systems might receive from school voucher programs. These arguments legitimize vouchers, by revealing their potential of improving and saving the failing public schools, increase parental satisfaction with the choice of their children’s schools, increase academic achievement in children enrolled at private school choice programs, and improve accountability. Available research also shows that competition occasioned by the school vouchers is an essential ingredient in improving schools’ performance and becoming more efficient (Coulson 1998). Unfortunately, the study was limited to empirical analyses of the school voucher programs, using data that is not updated due to the lack of scholarly comprehensive research on school vouchers in recent times. The study was also limited to the small amount of information provided by reliable sources, taking into consideration the controversial nature of the topic and the bias that exists in many sources visited.

The popular belief across America today is that the state-run schools are failing because of inadequate competition and lack of accountability to parents and taxpayers. These key ingredients have been kicked out of the education system by politicians, school administrators, and the state’s teachers’ unions through backdoor corruption, ineptness, and bureaucratic structures (Weil 2002). This research presented school vouchers as an effective alternative that offers the opportunity of a good education for children that attend failing public schools. Voters are given the choice to decide on this issue and therefore their influence will dictate the future of those children that can benefit from these programs.

Study limitation

This research study was limited with respect to a number of issues. To start with, this researcher could not get hold of percentage approval ratings for the school voucher program in the four states under investigation: Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and California. This is a crucial undertaking that is very relevant to a research study of this nature, as it would have helped shed light on both the popularity and awareness of the school voucher program in the various states. Another limitation to this research study was with regard to its empirical analysis, seeing that there lack the very current data on the issue at hand, in effect jeopardizing the attainment of conclusive findings. The information obtained from a majority of the sources was also both sketchy and limited, with several of the sources having reduced impartiality regarding the issue of school vouchers.


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