The Case Against School Vouchers

In an ominous 5-4 decision yesterday, the United States’ right-wing Supreme Court used disingenuous claims of concern for poor inner-city children to remove a major roadblock to a leading goal of the conservative movement: letting parents use public funds to pay for their children’s tuition at private and religious schools. In an opinion that elicited delight throughout right circles, the court ruled that Cleveland’s voucher plan was a “program of true private choice.” The plan, ruled Chief Justice Rehnquist, is properly designed to meet the needs of “lower income and minority families” poorly served by some of the nation’s “worst performing public schools.”

The ruling reversed a lower federal court’s decision that the use of public money for religious school tuition violated the US Constitution’s mandatory separation of church and state. As the New York Times accurately reported this morning, the ruling “moves the debate out of constitutional law and into policy and politics, ensuring that school vouchers will be a subject of contention from Congress to statehouses to the presidential campaign trail for years to come.”

Rehnquist’s ruling received predictable support from conservative black Justice Clarence Thomas, an opponent of affirmative action and other programs meant to level the playing field for African-Americans. In concurring with Rehnquist’s opinion, Thomas behaved consistently with his original job description by providing the requisite racial bona fides. He quoted Frederick Douglass and positively associated vouchers with the African-American community’s historical struggle for equal education. He noted accurately and non-controversially that “many of our inner-city public schools deny emancipation to urban minority students” and that “failing urban public schools disproportionately affect minority children most in need of educational opportunity.”

Conservatives hope that the ruling will give new life to a movement that uses proclamations of concern for predominantly black and Hispanic inner-city public school students to push an agenda that seeks to roll back social democracy and racial justice in the nation’s educational system. Ultimately, their movement targets what Thomas calls “the romanticized ideal of universal public education.” It is vital that all who value that “romanticized” ideal to develop understand where the voucher movement comes from, how it actually threatens the interests of those it claims to defend, and where specifically its arguments fall apart. This essay is an attempt to advance that understanding.

I Background

School vouchers are a highly contentious policy issue with particular and rising resonance in the black community. Following the establishment of several large-scale voucher programs in the 1990′s, the debate over vouchers has become especially intense. The fundamental controversy surrounding vouchers is whether or not public money should be used to pay for private schools. The debate is focused primarily on disproportionately black and Hispanic urban school systems. While support for vouchers has tended historically to come from conservative whites, a significant portion of the more liberal black community now tells opinion pollsters that they support vouchers.

The history of the voucher movement dates as far back as the 1950′s, when vouchers were used as a tool for white families to escape school desegregation as ordered by Brown v. Board of Education (1954). At the same time, conservatives who were ideologically committed to a market-based system of education supported vouchers in the name of school choice. These early voucher advocates influenced conservative political leaders to push for public subsidies to pay for tuition and tuition tax breaks for private school families. During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan spoke consistently in favor of school vouchers

The adoption of the Milwaukee program in 1990 reinvigorated the voucher movement and led to the adoption of voucher programs in several cities and states around the country. Large public voucher programs were established in Cleveland and Florida in 1996 and 1999. A number of private voucher scholarship programs sprouted in cities like New York, Dayton, and San Antonio. States such as Minnesota, Iowa, and recently Illinois have established tax breaks for families who send their children to private schools. After unsuccessfully attempting to create a federal voucher program, the current White House has established tax breaks for families who use education saving accounts to pay for private school tuition.

The White House’s recently passed federal education bill, titled the “No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA),” whose title is blatantly plagiarized from the official slogan of the progressive anti-poverty Children’s Defense Fund, gave vouchers a small foot in the federal policy door. It made parents of children in public schools that do not meet performance standards for three straight years eligible to receive $1500 of federal Title I (poverty) educational funds. Those funds can be used for private or public or transfer to a higher-performing public school.

II The Pro-Voucher Argument

Voucher proponents make the following arguments:

Urban Public Schools are Failing Poor and Minority Students

Across the nation urban public education systems serving disproportionately black and Hispanic poor students perform far below national norms, leaving their students woefully disadvantaged in their effort to attain higher degrees and remunerative employment.

The Threat of Free Market Competition Improves Student Achievement in Public Schools

The threat of competition leads low-performing public schools to improve test scores to prevent a loss of students and public money to private schools.


Parents should have the right to choose where their child goes to school. Poor and minority students shouldn’t be forced to attend poorly performing schools. Some of these students will be “saved” by attaining the opportunity to attend private schools.

Students Who Receive Vouchers Experience Improved Test Scores

Black voucher students’ standardized test scores are higher than black students who applied for but did not receive vouchers. In Milwaukee, significant test score gains were experienced by students during years 3 and 4 of that city’s voucher program. In Cleveland, voucher students experienced significant improvements in science and language scores.

There is Strong Public Support for Vouchers, Especially in the Black Community

A 2001 Gallup Poll of 1108 respondents found that 52% of public school parents supported voucher programs. A 1999 poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a leading black think-tank, found that the majority of 1,678 respondents favored vouchers. Sixty percent of black respondents 72% of black respondents earning less than $15,000 per year supported vouchers. A 1999 Public Agenda survey of 1,200 found that 68% of black respondents supported vouchers.

A Critique of the Pro-Voucher Argument

The pro-voucher argument is based on a number of false premises and key omission detailed in this and the following section:

Vouchers Will Exacerbate Key Causes of Public School Failure

Public schools fail poor and minority students for a number of reasons, including the nation’s inadequate and savagely unequal structure for allocating public school resources between and among schools and school districts. Voucher programs will worsen that structural inequity, draining money from the poorest public schools and providing public subsidies to private schools that tend to privilege middle- and upper-class students over children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Other Dark Sides of Competition

Voucher-based competition generates negative outcomes that are not acknowledged by voucher proponents. Researchers find that test-score improvements in Florida public schools subject to voucher-based market forces are the result of those schools’ practice of “teaching to the test” in specific subject areas. “Teaching to the test” means that teachers find out in advance the content of standardized tests and then gear their curriculum to the exams. It is the consensus of educational researchers that “teaching to the test” is an extremely undesirable method for improving student achievement.

Public schools often respond to the demand for improved performance on standardized tests by removing low-performing students from official test-score tabulations. This is achieved by classifying such students as “special” students: “limited-English,” “bilingual,” “special education,” or “learning disabled.” Voucher-based competition will compel public school administrators to push more and more low-performing students into “special” programs, in an attempt to artificially improve test scores.

The Limits of “Choice”

Real and meaningful school “choice” exists only when everyone has reasonably good options from which to choose. It doesn’t exist when parents and students must selected between a good choice and a bad one or when their access to “good” choices is determined by lottery. All schools, including public schools, should be equally funded institutions with high quality teachers.

Voucher programs’ promise of a meaningful “choice” between public and private education for poor public school students is largely an illusion for three basic reasons. First, the public schools are often so inadequately funded and staffed and overcrowded that they can’t possibly match the quality of education provided in smaller and more selective private schools. Second, many students in low-performing public schools do not have access to decent private schools in their immediate geographical area. Under all current voucher programs except Florida’s, moreover, access to private school vouchers is regulated by lottery. Third, private schools retain the right to deny admission to voucher students for a number of reasons, including low test-scores, religion, gender, and behavioral history.

Inconclusive Research

Existing research supporting the relationship between student achievement and vouchers is extremely problematic. Research on privately financed voucher programs shows no consistent pattern of improvement in achievement across subject, grade, and the length of time. In a comprehensive study of a large-scale private school voucher program in New York City during the 1990s, the leading think-tank Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. found an at-best weak relationship between vouchers and improved school performance for students receiving vouchers. “On standardized tests,” Mathematica found, “students offered a scholarship generally performed at about the same level as students in the [non-voucher] control group.”

Research on publicly financed voucher programs is also problematic. The official research team designated by the Wisconsin state legislature to analyze the Milwaukee voucher program concluded that voucher students performed no differently on standardized tests than Milwaukee Public School students. Students who received vouchers did no better than those who applied but didn’t receive them. Research on the Cleveland voucher program finds that there may have been improvements in science and language, but there was no improvement in other subject areas.

The non-partisan federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded recently that research on the academic benefits of public voucher programs is inconclusive. “None of the findings” made so far by academic researchers, the GAO concluded, “can be considered definitive.”

The Limits of Polling Data

The same 2001 Gallup Poll as the one mentioned above found that only 34% of all respondents support vouchers. The Joint Center’s 1999 poll found that 63 percent of the general public, 66 percent of school parents, and 60 percent of voucher supporters admit to knowing “very little” to “nothing” about vouchers. When queried about their understanding of school vouchers, 80% of the general public, 81% of parents, and 75% of voucher supporters reported that they “need to learn more” in order to have an intelligent opinion.

Polling questions on vouchers tend to be devoid of context and plagued by abstraction. If the polls were properly constructed to gage true popular sentiment on vouchers, respondents would be asked if they would support school vouchers over equitably funded and desegregated schools with small class sizes and well-trained, highly motivated teachers. The majority of respondents would certainly say “no” to such a question. In fact, polling data suggests a great deal more popular support for increasing and equalizing school spending and desegregating schools than for vouchers.

Especially noteworthy in measuring real public opinion on vouchers is the sorry performance of vouchers in the electoral arena. Every one of the eight statewide voucher referendums that have reached state ballots since the 1970s have been defeated. Since 1972, the highest vote percentage received by a pro-voucher referendum is thirty six – this in spite of the fact the voucher proponents have spent significantly more money than voucher opponents to advertise their position.

IV Additional and Related Problems with School Vouchers

Subsidizing Private Schools

In Milwaukee, many private schools that accept vouchers charge voucher students significantly more than non-voucher students. In fact, one third of Milwaukee’s private voucher schools’ charge voucher students between 200 and 400 percent of the tuition charged to non-voucher students. The total overcharge of voucher students (and the public schools) is equivalent to 40% of the overall expense of the city’s voucher program. In Cleveland, moreover, one third of vouchers go to students already attending private schools.


Vouchers allow the highest performing students with the most educated parents to attend private schools, leaving the most disadvantaged behind. In the long run, students whose parents do not have the financial ability (see the sub-section titled “Insufficient Funds” below) to keep them in voucher programs tend to drop out. Voucher proponents concede this may be the case but then argue that the “best and brightest” students are the most logical ones to “save” from the failed public schools. This is fatalistic zero-sum thinking. It would be more appropriate for those who support quality education for poor students to advocate that all students have quality opportunities.

Separation of Church and State

The Supreme Court’s decision yesterday aside, publicly funded vouchers conflict with the separation of church and state mandated by the United States Constitution. Fully eight-five percent of private schools are religious. After removing private schools that are so academically selective and expensive that vouchers don’t apply, the percentage is even higher. Government programs that fund religious schools even by mere default (reflecting the absence of non-religious schools in many locales) violate the First Amendment. Public funding, either direct (a government check to the school) or indirect (a government check to the parents), is unconstitutional. As Supreme Court Justice David Souter noted in his sensible dissent yesterday, “in the city of Cleveland the overwhelming proportion of large appropriations for voucher money must be spent on religious schools if it is to be spent at all. The money,” he wrote, “will thus pay for eligible students’ instruction not only in secular subjects but in religion as well, in schools that can fairly be characterized as founded to teach religious doctrine and to imbue teaching in all subjects with a religious dimension. Public tax money will pay at a systemic level for teaching the covenant with Israel and Mosaic law in Jewish schools, the primacy of the Apostle Peter and the Papacy in Catholic schools, the truth of reformed Christianity in Protestant schools, and the revelation of the Prophet in Muslim schools, to speak only of major religious groupings in the republic.”

Insufficient Funds and Class Favoritism

Vouchers generally provide insufficient funding for poor students to attend private schools. The average voucher, both public and private, to date is worth between $1500 and $2000; the voucher ceiling in Cleveland’s plan is on the higher end of that range. Private school tuition, especially at the high school level, costs considerably more. Elite Chicago private schools like Francis Parker, the University of Chicago Lab School, and the Latin School cost as much as $14,000. The low level of most existing vouchers prevents poor students from attending most private schools. A considerable number of students turn down vouchers because their families’ cannot cover the financial gap between the voucher and real private-school tuition.

The tax breaks offered by the Bush administration through education accounts are in essence public-private educational subsidies for the middle class. To benefit from this tax policy, families have to contribute money to an education IRA. Poor families living below the poverty cannot contribute the federal maximum of $2,000 a year to an account to pay for their children’s future private school education. The education account is geared for middle class families, not the inner-city poor that the White House claims to target in the “No Child Left Behind Act.”

Selection Factors and Availability

Private schools rigidly control whom they accept for admission and limit the pool of eligible students who use vouchers. While voucher proponents of vouchers argue that voucher programs contain measures to prevent discrimination, private schools can and do reject or turn away students with learning disabilities, limited English, or behavioral problems. In Florida, 93% of the private schools will not accept students with vouchers. Some Milwaukee schools have turned away all students with vouchers, while others have turned away students based upon ability, gender, and religion. Many private schools make parental involvement and other special investments of time and effort a prerequisite to admission. The typical inner-city single mother who works one or more jobs, often with a considerable commute, simply cannot meet such requirements. At the same time, only students with quality private schools in their community would even be in geographical position to benefit from voucher programs. The poorest urban communities, not to mention virtually all rural areas, would have considerably less access to such schools. Again, the few are privileged over the many.

Accountability Issues

There is virtually no accountability in voucher programs. Private schools are not required to test their students, release test score data, provide services for special education or learning disabled students, and hire certified teachers. They are also not required to respect constitutional protections such as free speech, due process, or equal protection, and do not have to obey laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, marital status, or pregnancy. Milwaukee dropped the requirement to monitor the achievement of voucher students in 1995.

Diverting Attention and Money from Core School Funding and Desegregation Issues

The voucher debate diverts attention from more fundamental school reform topics such as fair funding and desegregation. School vouchers would be an insignificant topic if the public school system were structured in such a way that all students received adequate and equitable funding, small classes, and high quality teachers. As countless studies reveal, public education in the United States is fundamentally challenged by local school district’s extreme reliance on local property taxes to pay for basic school operating expenditures. This reliance naturally creates extraordinary, even “savage” (in former public school teacher Jonathan Kozol’s well-known writings) school funding disparities that reflect and reproduce the nation’s remarkable and related patterns of spatial segregation by race and class. Children in predominantly white and affluent property-rich districts attend schools with significantly higher per-pupil expenditures and far superior teachers, programs, and facilities to those experienced by inner city students most in need of extra public monies. Thanks to the American public school funding formula, one of the major problems with the nation’s public school system is precisely the extent to which it mirrors and exacerbates existing private inequalities in American society. Like so much of the public sector activity that the ideological shock troops of the right and their business class sponsors love to label as “tax and spend” liberalism and even “socialism,” the actually existing “public” school system in America really works largely to preserve and expand private privilege.

Race is strongly correlated with this those inequalities, a relationship that has deepened as the nation’s schools have become increasingly more separated by race over the last two decades. The Harvard Civil Rights Project finds that 70 percent of black K-12 students attended predominantly minority schools at the end of the 20th century, compared with 63 percent in 1980. U.S. schools are actually “re-segregating” in part because federal courts have ended strong desegregation plans adopted after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. One of the most disturbing rulings by the federal judiciary invalidates school desegregation across city-suburban lines, protecting the special advantage favored by predominantly white property-rich school districts on the more affluent periphery of the nation’s metropolitan areas.

If the Supreme Court is as sincerely concerned as it claims with improving the quality of education for poor urban children, it should begin by reversing this and other disastrous decisions.

Beyond diverting attention from public schools’ funding needs and desegregation issues, public school voucher programs like Cleveland’s literally divert funds from public schools, thereby exacerbating precisely the public school crisis that gives so much false progressive legitimacy to the voucher movement in the first place.

If the Supreme Court were actually serious in its devotion to “underprivileged minority students” (Thomas’ phrase), it would also give serious consideration to lawyers who argue that America’s savage school funding inequalities are both unconstitutional and contrary to the supposedly American ideals of promoting democracy and equal opportunity. Rather than examine the penetration of America’s public and democratic educational system by private privilege and elite class interest, it prefers to further that privilege and interest in the name of the system’s greatest victims.


With horrifying new approval from no the most aristocratic branch of the world’s most powerful government, conservatives are using vouchers to encourage disadvantaged people to accept the tragically wrong notion that “free” market forces are “the only way out” of the crisis of urban education. Black and Hispanic community and civil rights leaders, social justice activists, and the citizenry in general must not be fooled. At the same time, in opposing vouchers, they should advocate for the democratic restructuring of the school finance system and for meaningful school desegregation. The should push for other reforms, including a reduction of the nation’s dysfunctional minority-bashing addiction to standardized tests and the development of teaching and course materials that encourage critical thinking and passionate public engagement of the sort that is essential to a functioning democracy. Unlike school vouchers, equitably funded and integrated public schools with small classes, appropriate academic curriculums, and highly trained teachers will expand opportunity for the disadvantaged students in whose name voucher proponents wrap their regressive, falsely progressive project. Z

Paul Street is Vice President for Research and Planning and Dennis Kass is Education Research Specialist at the Chicago Urban League

Dr. Paul Street Vice President of Research & Planning Chicago Urban League 773.451.3591 FAX: 773.285.7772 www.cul-chicago.org

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