With Republicans controlling a majority of state houses and the U.S. House of Representatives, interest in school vouchers has spiked during the past year at the federal, state, and local levels. Vouchers are payments that parents use to finance private school tuition for their children. Although vouchers can be privately funded, the programs that attract the most attention and controversy provide vouchers paid for with public tax dollars.
In the deal that ended the stalemate over the federal fiscal year 2011 budget, Congress restored funding for the District of Columbia voucher program, which had been discontinued in 2009 by the Obama Administration and the previous Democratic- controlled Congress. Vouchers are also likely to be a hot-button issue during the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the 2012 national elections. Indiana recently enacted a statewide voucher program, and other states are actively considering voucher proposals with strong support from key legislators and governors. The school board in Douglas County, Colorado, adopted a local private school voucher program this spring.
In 2000, the Center on Education Policy (CEP), an independent nonprofit organization, reviewed and summarized the major research on school vouchers in the report School Vouchers: What We Know and Don’t Know and How We Could Learn More, available at www.cep-dc.org. Since 2000, much has changed in the voucher landscape. On the legislative front, new voucher programs have been established during the past decade in D.C., Ohio, and New Orleans, in addition to the recently adopted programs in Douglas County and Indiana. Citizens’ referenda on vouchers in California, Michigan, and Utah were defeated by sizeable margins. On the judicial front, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the longstanding Cleveland voucher program was constitutional, but state Supreme Courts struck down an established voucher program in Florida and a new statewide program in Colorado. On the research front, numerous studies have added to the knowledge base about vouchers, including comprehensive studies examining the longer-term effects of vouchers in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and D.C.
This CEP report provides updated information for policymakers and others about the status of publicly funded voucher programs and the findings of major voucher studies published since 2000. Other types of programs also subsidize private school tuition including tuition tax credits, specialized vouchers for students with disabilities, town tuition programs for remote rural students, and privately funded vouchers but in order to produce a succinct report focusing on the most controversial form of subsidy, we limited our review to publicly funded voucher programs for general education students.