Education Vouchers

— National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (Teachers College, Columbia University)
Updated on Jun 7, 2011

Educational vouchers represent a system of education finance in which parents are given a tuition certificate that can be used to attend participating public or private schools. Education vouchers can be paid by public (government) or private (corporations, foundations) funds. Many different kinds of voucher plans have been proposed. Each may address the needs of different students and emphasize different priorities. For example, the dollar amount of a voucher differs considerably among different plans. Also, a voucher can be given to low-income students, to students in failing schools, or to the entire population. However, all publicly-funded voucher programs take funds usually given directly to public schools and allocate them to parents to decide where money for their child’s education will be spent.

For further discussion of education vouchers, see the following NCSPE article:
Occasional Paper 5: Levin, Henry M. 2000. “A Comprehensive Framework for Evaluating Educational Vouchers.”

Why are publicly-funded education vouchers controversial?

Publicly-funded education vouchers allow families to make private decisions regarding how public taxpayer money should be spent. Therefore, a voucher program hopes to create an educational market where schools must compete for students. Supporters claim market benefits, such as choice and innovation, will improve education. Opponents fear that vouchers will lead to greater inequality and the loss of civic preparation. Current evidence concerning the impact of vouchers is disputed. The potential advantages and disadvantages of publicly-funded vouchers are listed below.

What are the possible advantages of publicly-funded vouchers?

  • Increased Choice. A tuition certificate, especially for low-income families, helps parents afford to choose a school suited to their child’s needs.
  • Greater Competition. As families gain the ability to choose the school their child attends, schools may have to improve to attract students.
  • Targeted Assistance. Vouchers can be aimed at a particular struggling student population and offer assistance without changing the entire public education system.
  • More Parental Discretion. Vouchers provide parents with significant authority over the knowledge and skills their child will learn.

What are the possible disadvantages of publicly-funded vouchers?

  • Increased Inequality. Unregulated markets may produce widely varying quality and school focus.
  • Difficult Implementation. Many private schools refuse to participate in voucher programs and there may be more interested students than seats available.
  • Administrative Costs May Rise. New administrative and functional oversight, informational services, and transportation will need to be addressed to run a voucher program. This creates additional costs.
  • Loss of Public Sphere. If education becomes a private decision of the family, there is little incentive to engage in public discourse and activity.

For further discussion of the debate surrounding education vouchers, see the following NCSPE articles:
Occasional Paper 54: Fischel, William A. 2002. “An Economic Case against Vouchers: Why Local Schools are a Local Public Good.”
Occasional Paper 56: Brunner, Eric and Jon Sonstelie. 2002. “Homeowners, Property Values, and the Political Economy of the School Voucher.”
Occasional Paper 67: Kane, Pearl. 2002. “An Interview with Milton Friedman on Education”
Occasional Paper 76: Merzyn, Wolfram and Heinrich W. Ursprung. 2003. “Voter Support for Privatizing Education: Evidence on Self-Interest and Ideology.”

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