The Controversial School Voucher Issue


This lesson printed from:

Posted December 8, 2000

Standards: 2, 3, 16

Grades: 9-12

Author: William Trainor

Posted: December 8, 2000

Updated: March 20, 2014


Recently, the concept and use of school vouchers has come to the forefront of political, societal, constitutional, and economical discourse. From Florida's new voucher program to the presidential political debates, school vouchers continue to be a most controversial topic.


Decision Making, Role of Government


  • Learn what school vouchers are and how they affect how education is provided.
  • Examine the pros and cons of school vouchers .
  • Learn why school vouchers are controversial from an economic, societal, and constitutional framework.


SchoolRecently, the concept and use of school vouchers has come to the forefront of political, societal, constitutional, and economical discourse. From Florida's new voucher program to the presidential political debates, school vouchers continue to be a most controversial topic.

The concept of school vouchers is far from new. In fact, Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winner for economics in 1976, has been a proponent of school vouchers since the mid 1950s. In general, school voucher programs are designed to provide students with a fixed dollar amount per year to attend the school of their choice. The logic behind this premise is that competition between schools for a student's dollars would enhance/improve the level of education being provided.



 Proponents Of Vouchers

The Center for Education Reform and the Friedman Foundation are major proponents of school vouchers. In their view, school vouchers are an important means for promoting school choice. As stated so eloquently by Milton and Rose Friedman:

School choice is about giving all parents the chance to be integral participants in their children's education. Power and choices make people feel more involved, more effective and more satisfied as citizens. Children whose parents can choose their best educational environment learn better and have a better chance to become productive American citizens. It's about improving public education and better preparing our kids for college and/or the workplace. It's about equality, it's about empowerment, it's about choices for our parents and chances for our children - ALL our children.

— Milton and Rose Friedman

Although school voucher programs appear to offer a better alternative to government provided education, the voucher programs have been attacked from many fronts. Below, is a list of what the Center for Education Reform considers nine erroneous arguments against school vouchers. It is your job to match up the nine arguments with the Center for Education Reform's annotated response.

Here is the Center's full response. This will help with the following interactive activity. In this activity you need to match up each argument with the reality.

  1. The Undermining America Argument: Choice will siphon off needed funds from public schools and, as a result, the quality of public education in the United States will suffer. In addition, choice will undermine democratic values and lead to segregation and division.
  2. The Creaming Argument: Choice will leave the poor behind in the worst schools.
  3. The Radical Schools Scare: Extremists such as the KKK, religious cults, or other radical groups will start schools.


Not everybody agrees that school vouchers are worth pursuing. In fact, the National Education Association (NEA) adamantly opposes school vouchers. What reasons can you come up with to oppose school vouchers? [This is an open-ended question to induce the students to start thinking. Legitimate answers would be that there are not enough schools for students to choose from, difficulty of being accepted to the school of one's choice, possible overcrowding at certain schools, lack of money at schools with small enrollments, etc.]

  1. Economic Issues
    1. The economic justification for school vouchers is that increased competition among schools will lead to higher educational output. Two cities have had a government-funded school voucher system in place for a number ofyears. What are those two cities? Visit the National Center for Policy Analysis to find out. [The Milwaukee voucher program began in 1990, while the Cleveland voucher program began in 1996. New York City started a private voucher program in 1997.]
    2. Based on the studies that NEA lists in the above link, have these two voucher programs been successful in increasing student achievement? [Based on NEA's cited studies which differ in analysis and opinion of the studies cited by The Center of Educational Reform, the programs have not shown a substantial benefit.]
    3. Proponents of vouchers also point to their cost effectiveness, arguing that vouchers actually reduce the costs of education while improving its quality. What do the studies cited by the NEA in the above link say about the cost effectiveness of the voucher programs in the two cities you listed above? [Again, different studies spin the numbers different ways, but the studies NEA cites report that Milwaukee's voucher schools received $1,000 more per student than comparable public schools. For 1998-99, Milwaukee's voucher program cost approximately $29 million for 6,000 students while Cleveland's voucher program for 1998-99 cost more than $9 million for 3,744 students.]
  2. Societal Issues

    What are the two main social effects of vouchers cited in the above link?

    1. [Research evidence from the United States and abroad shows that vouchers lead to greater segregation of students by socioeconomic status (SES) and race. (Source: Henry M. Levin, "Educational Vouchers: Effectiveness, Choice, and Costs," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1998.)
    2. Vouchers, both here and in other countries, tend to benefit more advantaged families. In Milwaukee, for example, voucher parents, on average, were better educated, more involved in their children's education, and had higher expectations for their children than parents of public school children. (Sources: Levin, 1998; Witte et al., Fifth Year Report, 1995; and Metcalf et al., A Comparative Evaluation of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, 1998.)]

    An additional argument against school vouchers is that the choice to attend a private school is not completely up to the student but often determined by the admissions committees at private schools. Also many suggest that the private market place would not necessarily supply high quality schools in certain areas.

    Go to Americans United For the Separation of Church and State Web page and find out what areas needing the most help, would most likely not be affected by a voucher program. Explain why. [Americans United is referring to urban areas and inner cities. Few private schools of any kind are located in these areas, and often times the private schools that are (or the ones that are "better" than public schools anyway) are often much more expensive then the voucher anyway. Thus poor families are not left with much of the choice promised.]
  3. Constitutional Issues

    1. What is the constitutional argument against school vouchers, dealing with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment? Visit the First Amendment Center website to find out. [Many of the lawsuits brought by the NEA are based on the argument that school vouchers breech the wall of separation between the church and state, since they provide state funds to sectarian schools as a matter or course.]
    2. Did the Wisconsin Supreme court agree that the Establishment Clause had been violated with Milwaukee's voucher program? [Despite the fact that the Milwaukee program was highly reminiscent of the New York voucher program which the United States Supreme Court struck down in 1973 in Committee for Public Education v. Nyquest, the Wisconsin court did not agree the Establishment Clause had been violated. In addition, "The Wisconsin Supreme Court also suggested that Nyquist in any event may no longer be good law because the U.S. Supreme Court -- in several post-Nyquist cases -- has sustained the constitutionality of programs providing various types of financial aid to students in sectarian schools."(Robert Chanin, General Council of NEA, 2/12/99)]

School Choice In Your State

Now let's see how the education system in your state ranks relative to the rest of the country. Click this link to see your state and answer the following three questions.

Source of information: The Friedman Foundation .Source of map: The Center for Education Reform.

  1. What is your state's rank by academic achievement? [Answer depends on your state.]
  2. What is the constant per pupil expenditure in public elementary and secondary schools? [Answer depends on your state.]
  3. The average cost to attend a private school in the United States is approximately $3,500 per year. Do you think you could attend a private school based on amount the government is spending on you to attend public school in your state? [Answer depends on your state.]

The rise of charter schools has also fostered the movement towards school choice. Beginning in 1992, charter schools now number approximately 1,700 serving more than 350,000 students in 37 states. Charter schools are still public schools, but rather than being run by the government per se, they receive a charter from the local school board or some other public entity to which they are accountable. They are funded based on the number of students that attend and they must attain certain achievement goals. Schools that do not meet the achievement goals are shut down (some already have been shut down). However, those charter schools still in operation are given high praise by students, educators, and parents. If a voucher program takes effect nationwide, it is likely that charter schools will play a large part in its implementation.

  1. How many charter schools are there in your state? Click here to find out! [Answer depends on your state.]


As you have seen, the concept of school vouchers is still controversial. Proponents point out cases that suggest vouchers enhance educational performance, while opponents analyze the same cases using different studies that suggest the opposite. As a student, would you like to decide where you will attend school and in turn determine which school receives your educational dollars? What if there is not another school close by to provide you with an alternative? Would you still be a proponent of vouchers? What if your only choices were from private sectarian (religious) schools in which the religion differed from your religion? What if you wished to stay at your school but many of your classmates went elsewhere, depriving your school of much needed funds? As you can see, the answer is not perfectly clear.