School vouchers

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School vouchers (or school choice) are certificates issued by a government which parents may use to pay for private school for their children. Tax money would then fund all or part of these students' private school education. They may sometimes also be used to reimburse the parents for homeschool expenses.

School choice in Europe[edit]

Sweden introduced a voucher system in 1992, which requires that students using vouchers are accepted on a first-come first-served basis.[1] Denmark has done the same. In the Netherlands, public and private schools have been given financial equity since 1917, which resulted in a de facto voucher system.

The Dutch system is as "voucherized" as you can get, to the extent of covering a majority of the nation's students. It does seem to work without a hitch, but for various reasons, its success has been difficult to export elsewhere.[2] The Swedes, for example, may reconsider their entire approach after a series of recent scandals.[3]


Vouchers have been proposed by those on the right for many years, but with perpetual controversy over private schools (also called independent, or confusingly public schools) and associated issues of social mobility, perhaps coupled with the desire of governments to save money, a full voucher scheme for all has never been tried. Instead other measures have been used by the right to widen "choice" in education and weaken the power of teaching unions and left-wing local government: the desire to destroy the left-wing teaching establishment being more important than ensuring cheaper education for the rich.

The Conservative Party, being the main right-wing party (and with many privately-educated MPs[4]), has occasionally considered vouchers. They were its policy under Michael Howard at the 2005 General Election (a disastrous defeat), but were rejected by new leader David Cameron in 2006.[5] Instead, Cameron unveiled plans for state-funded "free schools" which anyone could set up, outside of local authority control and with freedom over their curriculums.[6] This would increase education options outside state control (enabling Education Secretary Michael Gove to pursue a vendetta against a teaching establishment that he detested[7]), but wouldn't provide a partial subsidy for parents sending their sprogs to more expensive fee-charging schools.

Some form of voucher or tax credit has been supported by extreme right-wing think tanks the Adam Smith Institute[8] and Institute of Economic Affairs[9].

From 1980 to 1997, the UK offered the Assisted Places Scheme, which offered funding to poor but gifted children to attend independent schools, based on their parents' income and performance in entrance exams; this was abolished by Tony Blair shortly after coming to power.[10] In the UK, independent schools arguably receive favorable tax treatment thanks to their status as charities, even though many operate more like businesses providing services to the rich; there have been calls from some on the left for this to be abolished.[11]

School choice in the US[edit]

Essentially, school vouchers let parents more easily afford to send children to private schools by subsidizing some or all of the costs that would otherwise be paid for by parents.[12] Biased organizations, such as the Heartland Institute have claimed that such policies can reduce the cost of education to the taxpayer, as if this were the most important endpoint,[13] but even this has been disputed by independent analyses[14][15][16] — a universally-applied voucher system would not save tax money.[15][16] Vouchers do not have an effect on what should be the primary endpoint, improving overall academic achievement — overall, private schools that accept vouchers do not perform better than public schools.[15][16] Proponents have argued that competition would force public schools to perform to keep up. Private school students generally perform better on reading and math tests (where religious ideology is irrelevant); however, the U.S. Department of Education found that when adjusted for factors such as race and gender, private schools perform about as well as public schools.[17] Joshua Cowen, a researcher who has studied voucher programs for two decades, wrote that while small-scale voucher programs can show academic improvements, large city or statewide programs have disastrous effects on academic performance.[18]

Vouchers also come with some significant disadvantages. Most notably, school vouchers threaten to undermine the current educational system by putting public and private schools in direct competition, potentially leading to a lack of funding to public schools and a corresponding lower quality education afforded to low income students and minorities.[19] Furthermore these private schools will be less accountable to the government. This means that schools with religious agendas will be supported by voucher programs.[20]

Possibly the biggest problem with this is tax money being used to fund religious education, a big no-no in places such as the United States where separation of church and state is supposed to be a thing. This has already occurred in states that have or had voucher programs such as Florida, where public money was funding schools with educational curricula including creationism.[21][22] It's no surprise, then, that the religious right and their donors are major proponents of "school choice" (read: tax money for religious indoctrination).[23][24] In other words, it's not a shock that schools full of rich white kids with private tutors have better results.

"School choice" is de facto segregation, especially in The Southern United States.[25] The reason that this is so is because the segregationist Boutwell Committee in Alabama laid out the plan to defeat school desegregation using vouchers that is still in use today by voucher advocates.[26][27] Milton Friedman, an early advocate of school vouchers was aware of this plan, but thought that freedom of choice was more important than desegregation, and was necessary to dismantle what he called 'government schools.'"[26][27] The commission's plan had four basic components:[26]

  1. Eliminate any reference to segregation of schools. In other words, Alabama laws would "concede the right of white and negro families to send their children to mixed public schools."
  2. Remove any language from the state constitution guaranteeing a right of education or any obligation of the state to fund public school­children at any level. Instead, establish a state policy to promote education "consistent with available resources … and ability of the individual student."
  3. Enable local school officials to determine "eligibility, admission, and allocation of pupils, including the power to refuse admission to individuals or groups whose deficiencies in scholastic [work] would compel undue lowering of school standards…"
  4. Provide vouchers and other tax funds for private schools to operate on their own admission standards.

Supreme Court decisions[edit]

In 2002, the Supreme Court upheld a voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio in the case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.[28] This initiated what is known as the "private choice test":

  • The program must have a valid secular purpose,
  • Aid must go to parents and not to the schools,
  • A broad class of beneficiaries must be covered,
  • The program must be neutral with respect to religion, and
  • There must be adequate non-religious options.

However, a number of state supreme courts have ruled against vouchers that would fund religious schools, like Florida,[29] or they have been voted down by referendum such as in California, Michigan,[30] and Utah, of all places.[31]

The voters speak[edit]

In contrast to vouchers that are imposed on the populace by elected representatives who may just be following the will of lobbyists and/or the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), vouchers are consistently unpopular when put on ballots for voters, even in Red states:[32]

  • New York, 1967 (72% against); supported by the Catholic Church
  • Michigan, 1970 (57% against); supported by the Catholic Church
  • Nebraska, 1970 (57% against); supported by the Catholic and Lutheran churches
  • Maryland, 1972 (55% against)
  • Oregon, 1972 (69% against)
  • Idaho, 1972 (53% against)
  • Maryland, 1974 (57% against)
  • Washington, 1975 (61% against)
  • Missouri, 1976 (60% against)
  • Alaska, 1976 (54% against)
  • Michigan, 1978 (74% against); supported by a coalition of churches
  • Washington, D.C., 1981 (89% against); supported by a right-wing anti-tax group
  • California, 1982 (69% against); supported by the Catholic Church
  • Massachusetts, 1982 (62% against); supported by the Catholic Church
  • Massachusetts, 1986 (70% against)
  • Utah, 1988 (70% against)
  • Oregon, 1990 (67% against); supported by the Libertarian Party, then-Vice President Dan Quayle and then-Representative Newt Gingrich
  • Colorado, 1992 (67% against); supported by then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander
  • California, 1993 (70% against); supported by a religious right coalition
  • Washington, 1996 (65% against)
  • Michigan, 2000 (69% against); supported by Dick DeVos (then-CEO of Amway), Betsy DeVos and Senator John McCain
  • California, 2000 (71% against); supported by billionaire venture capitalist Tim DraperWikipedia
  • Utah, 2007 (62% against); supported by ALEC and Patrick M. Byrne
  • Florida, 2012 (55% against)
  • Oklahoma, 2016 (54% against)
  • Arizona, 2018 (65% against);[33] supported by Koch brothers- and Betsy DeVos-affiliated organizations[34]

Despite their uniform unpopularity, legislatures have forced vouchers upon the populace anyway in Washington D.C., Maryland and Florida.[32] Also despite voucher programs usually having limited initial time spans, once established they almost always get renewed indefinitely. 2023 marked the first time ever that that a voucher program was not renewed, in this case Illinois.[35]

External links[edit]


  1. Swedish Parents Enjoy School Choice, BBC
  2. Private Education Provision and Public Finance: The Netherlands, World Bank
  3. Sweden Introduced School Choice—Then it Got Ugly, Slate
  4. How Posh Is Parliament?, Factcheck, Channel 4, 2017
  5. Tories ditch plan for education vouchers, The Independent, 29 November 2006
  6. Cameron launches wave of free schools, BBC, 2 September 2015
  7. Michael Gove: Radical, controversial, divisive, Sean Coughlan, BBC, 15 July 2014
  8. School vouchers for England, Adam Smith Institute and Centre for Market Reform of Education, 2013
  9. The education voucher: a proposal for excellence, IEA Blog, Institute of Economic Affairs, 5 March 2020
  10. See the Wikipedia article on Assisted Places Scheme.
  11. Private schools don’t act like charities, so let’s strip them of the benefits, Frances Ryan, The Guardian, 16 Aug 2018
  13. "School Vouchers Are a Cost-Saver for Taxpayers" by James VonderHaar, Heartland Institute (archived from July 9, 2014).
  14. Who Gains, Who Loses? The fiscal impact of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program by Robert M. Costrell (2009) Education Next, volume 9, no. 1.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Vouchers do not improve student achievement, Stanford researcher finds: Education professor Martin Carnoy analyzed 25 years of research and found that voucher programs do not significantly improve test scores. Carnoy says vouchers distract from proven policies and programs with proven impact on test scores and graduation rates. by Carrie Spector (February 28, 2017) Stanford News.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 School vouchers are not a proven strategy for improving student achievement: Studies of U.S. and international voucher programs show that the risks to school systems outweigh insignificant gains in test scores and limited gains in graduation rates by Martin Carnoy (February 28, 2017) Economic Policy Institute.
  17. Comparing Private Schools and Public Schools Using Hierarchical Linear Modeling, National Center for Education Statistics
  18. After two decades of studying voucher programs, I’m now firmly opposed to them: Here’s why public money should not be funding private tuition by Joshua Cowen (July 20, 2022) The Hechinger Report.
  19. Matthew McKnight, "False Choice - How private school vouchers might harm minority students", New Republic.
  20. The Anti-Defamation League doesn't like it.
  21. Creationism and School Vouchers
  22. Blindly Supporting Blind Faith, Science Blogs
  23. Educational Choice and Hooey: School Vouchers Help Religious Schools Not Families, Americans United
  24. Vouchers/Tax Credits Funding Creationism, Revisionist History, Hostility Toward Other Religions
  25. Racial Segregation and the Private/Public School Choice, University of California, Santa Cruz
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 A Legacy Of Segregation: Private School Vouchers Were Created To Avoid Integration In Education — And They're Still Doing That Today Interview with Steve Suitts (September 2020) Church & State Magazine.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement by Steve Suitts (2020) NewSouth Books. ISBN 1588384209.
  28. Zelman v. Simmons-Harris at Findlaw
  29. Florida Supreme Court Blocks School Vouchers, New York Times
  30. Voters in California, Michigan Overwhelmingly Reject School Vouchers, Americans United
  31. Utah Voters Defeat Measure to Create First Statewide Voucher Program, Fox News
  32. 32.0 32.1 The People Have Spoken: Private School Vouchers Have A Long Track Record Of Failure At The Ballot Box by Rob Boston (January 2019) Church & State Magazine.
  33. Arizona Proposition 305, Expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Referendum (2018) Ballotpedia.
  34. Saving Arizona: Far-Right Forces Were Eager To Turn The Grand Canyon State Into A Giant Laboratory For School Vouchers. A Band Of Six Women Had Other Ideas. by Rob Boston (January 2019) Church & State.
  35. Failed experiment: For the first time ever, a state is letting a school voucher plan expire by Rob Boston (Dec 30, 2023) Americans United for Separation of Church and State.