Education Vouchers (page 2)

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

What was the Zelman decision? Why is it important?

The case Zelman et al. v. Simmons-Harris et al. gained national attention when the Supreme Court declared that vouchers could be used to attend religious schools under specific circumstances. The case concerned the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, which provided students with vouchers to attend public and private schools. Nearly all voucher recipients attended religious schools. Voucher opponents insisted the Cleveland program violated the separation of church and state. Defenders of the voucher program claimed students simply enrolled in the best schools available. For example, 46 of the 56 schools willing to accept vouchers held a religious affiliation. On June 27, 2002, in a 5-4 ruling, the court found that Cleveland’s voucher program did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and was allowed to continue operation.

The influence of the Zelman decision continues to be debated. Many voucher advocates believe legal acceptance is a crucial step forward in promoting widespread voucher programs. However, legal scholars and educators note that the ruling only applies to federal law. Many state constitutions explicitly prohibit the use of public dollars to fund religious education, which may obstruct future voucher programs.

For further reading on the recent Zelman et al. v. Simmons-Harris et al. Supreme Court ruling, see the following NCSPE articles:
Occasional Paper 50: Belfield, Clive and Henry M. Levin. 2002. “Does the Supreme Court Decision on Vouchers Really Matter for Education Reform?”
Occasional Paper 51: Kemerer, Frank R. 2002. “The US Supreme Court’s Decision in Cleveland: Where to From Here?”
Occasional Paper 61: Belfield, Clive and Henry M. Levin. 2002. “What Does the Supreme Court Ruling Mean for School Superintendents?”

How large are publicly-funded voucher programs?

Despite the significant attention given to educational vouchers, there are only a few, small voucher programs in existence. Many proposals for voucher programs have met sharp resistance from state legislators and local citizens. At present, only three states have operational voucher programs. A few other states are debating creating a voucher program. The chart below details current voucher programs in the United States.

State Targeted Location Target Population Number of Students (2002) Current Status
Ohio Cleveland Lottery Preference for Low-income students 5,147* Operational
Wisconsin Milwaukee Low-income students 11,670* Operational
Florida State-wide Students in failing schools and eligible disabled student 9,270* Operational
Colorado Denver "free and reduced lunch" students in participating districts 0 Approved, facing legal challenge
District of Columbia Washington D.C. Middle and low-income students (family of 4<52,000) 0 Under review of legislature
Source:  American Education Reform Council.

Evaluations of the impact of vouchers on educational achievement suggest no substantial differences in student achievement.

Where can I find out more about publicly-funded vouchers?

Information about publicly-funded vouchers located on the NCSPE website can be found at

Books on education vouchers include:

Howell and Peterson. 2002. The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Hoxby, C.M. 2003. The Economics of School Choice. Chicago. IL: University of Chicago Press.

Levin, H. 2001. Privatizing Education: Can the Marketplace Deliver Freedom of Choice, Efficiency, Equity and Social Cohesion. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

For additional information from internet resources see:

Education Commission of the States at:

People for the American Way– an advocate for public education– at:

Manhattan Institute– an advocate for private education– at:

For further reading on state voucher programs, see the following NCSPE articles:
Occasional Paper 42: Catterall, James and Richard Chapleau. 2001. “Voting on Vouchers: A Socio-Political Analysis of California Proposition 38, Fall 2000.”
Occasional Paper 78: Lenti, Leighann. 2003. “A New Wave of Voucher Programs? The Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program.”

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