Educational Vouchers: A Review of the Research


Alex Molnar


Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation
School of Education
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
PO Box 413
Milwaukee WI 53201


October, 1999




Educational Vouchers: A Review of the Research
October 1999

Alex Molnar
Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

This document combines excerpts from two reports: "Smaller Classes -- Not Vouchers -- Increase Student Achievement" (Harrisburg, Pa.: Keystone Research Center, March 1998); and "Smaller Classes and Educational Vouchers: A Research Update" (Harrisburg, Pa.: Keystone Research Center, June 1999). Both documents are available on the website of the Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation at

Table of Contents - Exercept 1
Historical Background
Educational Choice Enters the Mainstream
The Battle Over Vouchers Today
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Voucher Program
The Debate Over the Achievement Effect of the Milwaukee Voucher Program
Box 3: Public vs. Private Schools
Why Different Researchers Reach Different Conclusions
The Witte Evaluations
Box 4: Sorting through the Conflicting Voucher Results
The Greene, Peterson, and Du Evaluation
Box 5: When are Significant Results Not So Significant?
The Rouse Evaluation
Milwaukee’s Private Voucher Program -- PAVE
Box 6 - A Case Example of the Relative Cost and Performance of Public and Private Schools

The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program (CSTP)
Vouchers, Values, and Educational Equity
Box 7: Does Money Matter? School Spending and School Outcomes


Table of Contents - Exercept 2
The Argument Over Vouchers
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Voucher Program
The Achievement Effects of the Milwaukee Voucher Program

The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program (CSTP)
Official Evaluation Results for CSTP
Private Voucher Programs
Private School Vouchers (Con't)
Vouchers and Educational Equity

The Washington (D.C.) Scholarship Fund

The Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF) was established in 1993 to provide vouchers to low-income students. Its funding comes from a variety of individuals including John Walton and Ted Forstmann and foundations such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. In the fall of 1997, 460 WSF participants were attending 72 private schools. Beginning with the 1998-99 school year, the program planned to offer vouchers worth up to $2,200 to more than 1,000 students in grades K-8. No family with an income higher than 2.5 times the poverty level may participate. Families with incomes that fall below the poverty line are eligible for vouchers worth up to 60 percent of the cost of private school tuition.

Parents Advancing Choice in Education (Dayton, Ohio)

For the 1998-99 school year, the Parents Advancing Choice in Education (PACE) program in Dayton, Ohio, offered vouchers to 530 students previously enrolled in public schools and 250 students previously enrolled in private schools. The program pays up to 60 percent of the tuition at one of 20 private schools participating in the program, up to a maximum of $1,200. The program is funded by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a consortium of Dayton community leaders.

The WSF and PACE programs are being evaluated by the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, the Northern Illinois University Social Science Research Unit, and (for the PACE program only) the University of Dayton.27 In each program, a randomized design similar to that used to evaluate the New York School Choice Scholarship program is being implemented. At this point, no achievement data are available for either program.

San Antonio Private Voucher Programs

San Antonio has two private voucher programs, both of which are funded by the CEO America Foundation. The first began in 1992 and offers a voucher worth up to half the cost of tuition (to a maximum of $800) to any K-8 student eligible for free or reduced-price lunches who resides in Bexar County, Texas. Students may attend public or private schools. Godwin, Kemerer, and Martinez compared the effects of public school choice and private voucher programs in San Antonio.28 The small number of students (85) for whom baseline (1991-92) and final-year (1995-96) test score data were available and the limited nature of the results make their achievement findings of little value.

In April 1998 the CEO America Foundation and James Leininger committed $50 million over a period of 10 years to launch the Horizon Program. It is the first private voucher program in the country to offer a voucher to every low-income student within a single school district (the Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas). Any K-12 student who is eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch and who resides in the district may participate. Vouchers may pay up to 100 percent of a participating school’s tuition, to a maximum of $3,600 (grades K-8) for schools in the district and a maximum of $2,000 (grades K-8) for schools outside the district. For grades 9-12 the program pays up to $4,000 for schools in the district and up to $3,500 for schools outside the district.29

The evaluation of the Horizon Program is being conducted by David Myers (Mathematica Policy Research), Paul Peterson (Harvard University), Jay Greene (University of Texas), and Rodolfo de la Garza (Thomas Rivera Policy Institute). The first report, issued in September 1999, provided preliminary information about the children who attended private schools through the Horizon Program and about their parents. 

Vouchers and Educational Equity

The gap in funding between affluent and low-income districts in Pennsylvania already exceeds that in most other states. As of 1991-92, the last year for which comparable data have been collected for all 50 states, Pennsylvania had the 11th-largest gap in state and local funding per pupil between high-income and poor districts.30 A major concern with vouchers is that they could further increase funding inequities and the stratification of students by income, race, and social background.

Vouchers could increase inequity by diverting money from students currently served by the public schools to students who already go to private schools. For example, rather than providing Milwaukee Public School children with choice, the expansion of the Milwaukee voucher and charter school programs appears to be diverting money from children in the public schools and subsidizing families who were already sending their children to private schools. According to Henry Levin (Stanford University), the 5,902 students enrolled in either charter or voucher schools cost the Milwaukee Public Schools $29,214,900 in revenue in 1997-98. Of the 5,902 voucher and charter school students, only 1,379 had attended the Milwaukee Public Schools the previous year.31

Levin estimated that a national voucher program that included all current private school students and that offered the full range of services provided by public schools would cost $33 billion annually. The costs of accommodating additional students in private schools, record-keeping and monitoring, and providing transportation would add another $40 billion, bringing the total to $73 billion, about 25 percent of the current cost of public education nationally.

New evidence from Arizona corroborates the fear that a large-scale school choice program may increase stratification in the schools based on income, race, and ethnicity. Casey D. Cobb and Gene V. Glass found that Arizona charter schools are increasing racial segregation in public education. Minority students are disproportionately enrolled in charter schools with non-college-preparatory curricula.32 Large-scale voucher programs would share many of the characteristics of Arizona’s largely unregulated charter school program and may, therefore, similarly reduce educational equity.

There is evidence that all school choice programs, public school choice as well as voucher and charter school programs, increase student stratification by income and other family background characteristics but do not necessarily produce academic gains.

Godwin, Kemerer, and Martinez, in their analysis of the characteristics of families that chose to participate in either public or private school choice programs in San Antonio, found significant differences between choosing and non-choosing families. Choosing families had more education, higher incomes, higher employment levels, and fewer children, and were less likely to be on welfare, less likely to be African-American, and more likely to be two-parent families. Choosing families also had higher educational expectations and were more active in their children’s education. In addition, their children had higher standardized test scores.33

A 1992 Carnegie Foundation report evaluated choice programs around the country and reached the following conclusions: (1) To the extent that choice programs benefit children at all, they benefit the children of better educated parents. (2) Choice programs require additional money to operate. (3) Choice programs have the potential to widen the gap between rich and poor school districts. (4) School choice does not necessarily improve student achievement.34 Bruce Fuller, in a 1995 review, drew conclusions similar to those of the Carnegie report.35

In a review of the research on school choice in three countries (the U.S., Great Britain, and New Zealand), Geoff Whitty found little evidence to support the contention that the creation of educational "markets" increases student achievement. He did, however, find that educational "markets" make existing inequalities in the provision of education worse.36 Martin Carnoy drew a similar conclusion based on an analysis of the effects of school privatization in Chile and other countries.37

View References