Would a Federal Voucher Program Help or Harm Disadvantaged Students?

by Melissa Kahn

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President Trump’s unconventional selection and the Senate’s subsequent controversial confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education has been the subject of considerable debate, and much uncertainty remains as to how much damage she could do to the nation’s public education system. However, we do know that she is an enthusiastic proponent of school vouchers and charter schools. We also know that President Trump has proposed a federally funded voucher program which would redirect $20 billion from existing federal spending toward a block grant program for states to administer school vouchers.[1] Under these programs, parents of students living below the federal poverty level would be able to use a voucher to send their kids to a private or religiously-affiliated school of their choice. Clearly, voucher programs are targeted at economically disadvantaged students, and public opinion surveys show that minority and low-income parents tend to favor school vouchers more than the general public.[2] The question remains, however, whether such programs would help or harm the very constituency which it is designed to protect.

The debate between advocates and critics of vouchers generally reflects the political divide and boils down to a larger dialogue around what the federal role in education should be. Many Republican lawmakers, anxious to move away from a traditional, centralized public school system, support school choice and voucher programs. Pointing to the failure of the traditional public school system, they emphasize the potential of a free-market education system to create healthy competition and force traditional public schools to improve instruction.[3] They also point to research linking school choice, particularly catholic schools, to higher graduation rates and student test scores.[4]

In contrast, many Democrats, civil-rights groups, and teachers’ unions vehemently oppose a voucher program, and counter that a free-market system would leave behind families who lack the institutional knowledge or self-agency to recognize good schools or advocate for admission.[5] They also worry that a system of publicly-funded but privately owned schools with little government oversight would lead to dangerously low levels of accountability and increased racial segregation.

Voucher programs are hardly a new concept. Currently, there are 12 existing voucher programs that are approved and operating in the US, including programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, D.C., Vermont, Maine, Florida, Utah, Ohio, Arizona, and Georgia.[6] Though each have varying eligibility requirements, all target voucher eligibility to students that are disadvantaged.[7]

The empirical research on the effectiveness of voucher programs has been largely inconsistent and inconclusive, though several studies have reported a moderately positive effect. For example, pilot voucher programs in D.C.,[8] Cleveland,[9] and Milwaukee[10] show only modest gains in achievement for disadvantaged students. Moreover, the existing empirical research is problematic for several reasons. First, the question of what the appropriate metric for student achievement should be is already a source of much controversy across party lines: High school graduation rates? Test scores? Parent satisfaction? Therefore, the results of a study conducted by voucher advocates is unlikely to be adopted by voucher critics, and vice versa. In addition, the important differences between each existing voucher program (different voucher maximums and different priority arrangements for serving disadvantaged students) require us to be cautious about generalizing the results of empirical research of any one state’s voucher program to a nation-wide program.

The effects of a broad-sweeping federal voucher program are difficult to predict, and the benefits to disadvantaged students are largely unclear. Nevertheless, concerns about accountability should not be taken lightly, especially since Trump has said that states will have considerable flexibility in how they operate their own programs.[11] More research should be done as to what design features would allow the government to maintain reasonable oversight over a voucher program so as to minimize its harm to low-income students.

[1] See Press Release, President Donald Trump, Trump Outlines Bold New Plan for School Choice, https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/donald-j.-trump-remarks-on-school-choice.

[2] See David L. Leal, Latinos and School Vouchers: Testing the “Minority Support” Hypothesis, 85 Soc. Sci. Q. 1227, 1236 (2004).

[3] See Milton Friedman, The Role of Government in Education, in Economics and the Public Interest 127, 129 (Robert A. Solo ed.,1955) (arguing that “[h]ere, as in other fields, competitive private enterprise is likely to be far more efficient in meeting consumer demands”).

[4] See William N. Evans & Robert M. Schwab Evans, Finishing High School and Starting College: Do Catholic Schools Make a Difference? 110 Q. [J] Econ. 941, 941–974 (Nov. 1995).

[5] See Thomas Stewart & Patrick J. Wolf, The Evolution of Parental School Choice, in Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform, 91, 100 (Frederick M. Hess & Bruno V. Manno, eds., 2011).

[6] See generally Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, the ABCS of School Choice (2006-2007), http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/frieman/downloadFile.do?id=102

[7] See id.

[8] See Patrick J. Wolf et. al, School Vouchers and Student Outcomes: Experimental Evidence from Washington, DC., 32 J. Pol’y Analysis & 246, 255-67 (2013),

https://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1465141.files/Wolf%20et%20al%2013-%20DC%20OSP_JPAM.pdf.

[9] Kevin Metcalf et. al, Evaluation of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Grant Program: Summary Report 1998–2001 (Ind. Ctr. for Eval. 2003).

[10] John F. Wittee et. al, MPCP Longitudinal Educational Growth Study: Fifth Year Report 23 (Univ. of Ark. 2012), http://www.uaedreform.org/downloads/2012/02/report-29-mpcp-longitudinal-educational-growth-study-fifth-year-report.pdf.

[11] See Press Release, President Donald Trump, Trump Outlines Bold New Plan for School Choice, https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/donald-j.-trump-remarks-on-school-choice.