Voucher Battles Continue Across the Country

In August, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) asked a New Orleans federal court to enjoin the state from awarding school vouchers to students attending school in districts operating under a federal desegregation order. According to DOJ, Louisiana has given vouchers to students in at least 22 of the 34 districts remaining under desegregation orders, undermining the desegregation process.

Louisiana’s voucher program suffered an additional challenge in May when, in an unrelated case, the Supreme Court of Louisiana upheld a lower court’s ruling that the voucher program violates the state’s constitution by illegally diverting money earmarked for public schools to private and religious institutions.

At least two other state courts, however, were more favorable to voucher programs.

The Indiana Supreme Court concluded in May that the state’s two-year-old school program doesn’t violate the state’s required separation between church and state—even when voucher dollars fund religious education, the court ruled unanimously. The reason: the money goes to families and not the schools themselves.

In April, civil liberties groups in Colorado asked the Colorado Supreme Court to strike down a pilot program that provides public education funds to religious schools. A lower court had struck down the plan, but the court of appeals overturned that decision in February 2013.


Under a voucher program, a portion of tax dollars that would go toward a specific student’s public schooling instead goes to cover tuition at a private institution.

A common weakness in voucher programs nationwide is a lack of government oversight and public accountability.

A Washington Post investigation of the District of Columbia’s voucher program last year found that hundreds of students use their voucher dollars to attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings. Among the district’s voucher-approved schools were a family-run K–12 school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam school based in a converted home, and a school built around the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist.

In Louisiana, private schools with fewer than 40 voucher students don’t have to show basic competency among students in math, reading, social studies, and science.

In Wisconsin, a Republican legislator introduced a bill requiring private schools receiving voucher funding to submit the kind of student achievement and growth data to the state’s Department of Public Instruction that has been used for the past two years to produce public school ratings. He has gotten a cool reception from his fellow GOP colleagues. The pro-voucher group School Choice Wisconsin opposes the measure.

Despite voucher supporters’ efforts to make the voucher debate about “school choice” and improving opportunities for low-income students, vouchers remain an elitist strategy for subsidizing tuition for students in private schools, not expanding opportunities for low- income children. In some districts, vouchers are available to any student, regardless of income. Studies show that many of the students who use vouchers would have gone to private school whether or not they received the subsidy.

Fortunately, most states haven’t bought into pro-voucher rhetoric. To date, only about
one-third of the 40 states that have considered legislation on vouchers and/or tax credit scholarships since 2011 now have such programs: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin, in addition to the District of Columbia.

But lagging support nationwide hasn’t stopped some congressional leaders from seeking to expand such programs federally. In March, U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed a voucher program similar to one advanced by former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Their measure would reallocate $14.5 billion in funds now directed to high-poverty schools to subsidize tuition—at a public or private institution—for up to 11 million low-income students.

And in September, U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor wrote U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to reconsider DOJ’s lawsuit against the Louisiana school vouchers program.

The case against vouchers is overwhelming. Consider the following:

  • There’s no link between vouchers and gains in student achievement. There is no conclusive evidence that students who use vouchers to attend private school do better. Moreover, there’s no support for claims that vouchers improve educational quality by heightening school competition. The most dramatic improvements in student achievement have occurred in states and communities focused on teacher quality and extra help for students who need it.
  • Vouchers undermine accountability for public funds. Indeed some proposals to increase government oversight at voucher schools are met with vehement protests.
  • Vouchers do not reduce public education costs. Actually, they increase costs, by requiring taxpayers to fund two school systems, one public and one private.
  • Vouchers do not give parents real educational choice. Participating private schools may limit enrollment, and in many cases may maintain exclusive admissions policies and charge tuition and fees far above the amount provided by the voucher. Unlike public schools, private and religious schools can—and do—discriminate in admissions on the basis of prior academic achievement, standardized test scores, interviews with applicants and parents, gender, religion, income, special needs, and behavioral history.