What Parents Need to Know About School Vouchers

School vouchers allow low-income families to send their children to private schools they may not otherwise be able to afford. Yet public financing for private education is still relatively uncommon, available in only about two thirds of the states, and there is evidence that vouchers may not always increase student performance.

Voucher programs work differently in each state, but the basic principle is generally the same: The state pays for part of the cost of private school, usually for low-income students, in order to give parents additional choices.

While affluent parents who can afford private-school tuition often have many choices when considering which schools their children will attend, lower-income families often have little beyond the local public school.

“There are lots of families with much more limited means who have much fewer options,” says David Figlio, dean of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University.

Vouchers are designed to help balance that inequity.

[READ: Understanding Charter Schools vs. Public Schools.]

The Basics of School Vouchers

School vouchers or similar programs are an option in 32 states and the District of Columbia, and they are becoming more common.

In addition to traditional voucher programs, there are also those that serve the same function but use a different source of funding, Figlio says. For example, rather than direct payments from states, vouchers may be paid by private donors who then receive a 100% tax credit for their donation. Yet, however the voucher is funded, the experience is usually the same for students and parents.

Most voucher programs are not available to all students. Instead, they often target certain criteria such as family income or the performance of a student’s neighborhood school or district. Still, more than 600,000 students participated in a voucher, scholarship tax credit or education savings account program last school year, according to EdChoice, a group that advocates for vouchers and school choice.

The Debate Over Vouchers

Often, voucher programs touch off intense political debate.

Supporters say they give opportunities to low-income students who may be forced to attend low-performing schools.

Vouchers can also provide access to religious education, or other options such as a school that is closer to home, has an exceptional arts curriculum or offers after-school programs. Advocates also say vouchers make schools accountable to parents rather than the government. If families have more choices, schools will have to perform better to attract students.

[READ: Exploring Private Schools for Learning Disabilities.]

There is evidence that “voucher programs targeted to low-income students do modestly improve public schools,” at their current, relatively low, scale and magnitude, Figlio says. His research in Florida and Ohio shows that when private schools become an option for more parents, the competition “does move the needle” for public schools.

By contrast, opponents say the money directed to voucher programs would be better spent improving public schools.

“Vouchers undermine strong public education and student opportunity,” the National Education Association, a union that represents 3 million educators, proclaims on its website. “They take scarce funding from public schools — which serve 90% of students — and give it to private schools — institutions that are not accountable to taxpayers.”

Vouchers and Student Performance

There is little evidence that school vouchers actually improve individual student performance, and there’s even evidence that students who receive vouchers to attend private schools may do worse on tests than they would have if they had stayed in public schools.

A Brookings Institution analysis of four studies in different states with voucher programs found that “on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools.”

The conclusion was especially strong during the students’ first year in private school. Voucher advocates say that is a result of students adjusting to their new schools. But the two studies in the Brookings analysis that went beyond one year found that students were still behind their public-school peers in years three and four.

In a study titled Rhetoric Versus Reality, researchers at the RAND Corporation examined several voucher programs in depth and found mixed results.

“Small experimental, privately funded voucher programs suggest that African-American students may receive a modest achievement benefit after one or two years in the programs,” lead researcher Brian Gill wrote in a summary of their findings. “The exact reasons for this benefit, however, remain unknown. Children of other racial groups in voucher schools have shown no consistent evidence of academic benefit or harm.”

The RAND researchers found that most parents using vouchers to send their children to private school were satisfied with the education their children received.

On average, vouchers offer about $4,600 a year, according to American Federation for Children, which supports voucher programs. The average annual cost of tuition at a private K-12 school nationwide is $12,350, according to Educationdata.org, though that can be much higher in some states. In Connecticut, for example, the average tuition is almost $24,000.

[Read: Is There a Lack of Diversity in Private Schools?]

That relatively low dollar amount of vouchers in many states doesn’t cover the cost of elite private schools, raising the question of whether the private schools that vouchers make accessible are better than their public-school counterparts.

“Just because a school is private doesn’t mean it’s better,” Figlio says.

In Florida, Figlio says, there is a high amount of churn out of the voucher program, as students who struggled in public schools also struggled when attending private schools and returned to the public system. Still, Florida just approved a $200 million expansion of the state’s voucher program that supporters say will allow 61,000 more students to go to private schools using public funds.

As participation in voucher programs grows, its impact on local public schools could change, Figlio says. The competition that has driven modest improvement on a small scale could lead to measurable decline in public schools — which are typically funded on a per-pupil basis — if too many students opt out.

“We need to be watching very carefully to make sure that we’re not starting to see harm happening for public schools,” he says.

Resources for Parents

For those interested in learning more about school vouchers, there are many resources available. Here is a sample:

— The Education Commission of the States offers a 50-state listing of where voucher programs and other forms of choice exist.

— The National Conference of State Legislatures offers an interactive guide to school choice laws.

EdChoice offers facts and information about vouchers and other school choice programs.

Understood offers a guide to school vouchers for parents of children with learning differences.

Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.

More from U.S. News

Understanding Charter Schools vs. Public Schools

Exploring Private Schools for Learning Disabilities

Is There a Lack of Diversity in Private Schools?

What Parents Need to Know About School Vouchers originally appeared on usnews.com

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