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 Achievement Effects of the Milwaukee Voucher Program

The 1998 Keystone report contained an extended discussion, summarized only briefly below, of the findings of research on the Milwaukee voucher program.11 Since the release of that report, no new research has been published on the program (although the head of the official evaluation team, John Witte, did publish a new synthesis of his prior work).12

In considering the Milwaukee voucher programís achievement effects, three features should be kept in mind that make the program difficult to evaluate.

1. During each of the evaluation years (1990-95), the program enrolled less than 800 students (Table 1).

2. The parents of the 300-800 students in the program during the evaluation years had more education and higher academic expectations than the parents of most of the other 60,000 eligible Milwaukee Public School students. It is possible that students of parents with more education and higher expectations would achieve faster whether in public schools or voucher schools.

3. More than 80 percent of Milwaukee voucher students in the evaluation years attended three schools with established reputations. At best, the Milwaukee voucher experiment tells us something about how these particular private schools compare with the Milwaukee public schools as a group. It indicates nothing about the impact of a larger- scale voucher program in which some students attend new private schools.

Keeping these program characteristics in mind, the following conclusions about the achievement consequences of the MPCP can be drawn from the results of the three research teams that analyzed the Milwaukee data.

1. Disagreement exists about whether the voucher program generates positive achievement outcomes compared to the Milwaukee Public School system. Two of three research teams, including the methodologically most sophisticated (Cecilia Rouse of Princeton University), found no positive outcomes for the voucher students in reading. Two of three research teams, including Rouse, found positive outcomes for voucher students in math.

2. Rouse found that a group of Milwaukee public schools that have small classes and serve low-income students perform as well as voucher schools in math and better than voucher schools in reading. Rouse also discovered that voucher schools appear to have smaller classes than any of three sub-groups of Milwaukee public schools. Thus, any achievement benefit of voucher schools compared to the Milwaukee Public School system overall may be a result of smaller classes rather than any inherent advantage of private over public schools. Rouseís final word on the Milwaukee voucher program is:

If we really want to "fix" our educational system, we need a better understanding of what makes a school successful, and we should not simply assume that market forces explain sectoral [i.e., public-private] differences and are therefore the magic solution for public education.13


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The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program (CSTP)

Ohio enacted the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program (CSTP) legislation in March 1995 (Table 2 profiles the program).14 The CSTP legislation allowed the Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction to create a pilot voucher program in Cleveland. The Cleveland program is largely supported by money from Ohioís Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid Program, previously earmarked for the Cleveland Public Schools.

Scholarship recipients are selected by lottery with priority going to applicants whose family income is less than the Federal poverty level. Second priority goes to families whose income is less than twice the poverty level. There is no income cap on participation.

The approximately 30,000 K-3 students who reside within the Cleveland School District are eligible to apply to the program. Once admitted to the program, students may receive scholarships through eighth grade.

Since the Cleveland voucher program allows religious schools to participate, its constitutionality was immediately challenged. On July 31, 1996, the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas held the program constitutional and allowed it to be implemented. On May 1, 1997, an Ohio appeals court ruled the program unconstitutional. The Ohio Supreme Court allowed the program to go forward while it considers an appeal. It has not yet issued a ruling.

Table 2: Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program Profile 1996-1999


Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program Profile*


School Year

Number of Schools

Number of Applications

Number of Voucher Students**

Average Value of Voucher

Total Cost of Vouchers (millions)

Annual Attrition Rate



















Not available

Not available

Not available

*Includes figures only for the voucher component of the program, not the tutoring component. 
**As of June for each school year.

Source: Ohio Department of Education.

On June 24, 1997, Professor Paul Peterson of Harvard issued a press release that some observers interpreted to mean that his research team was conducting the official evaluation of the Cleveland program. In fact, his study was privately funded, not commissioned by the Ohio Department of Education.

Three months later, in September, Peterson and co-authors Jay Greene and William Howell (PGH) released a report that analyzed test scores from two private schools, Hope Central Academy and Hope Ohio City Academy. The achievement results were expressed as percentile-rank changes on fall (1996)-to-spring (1997) testing. PGH report overall K-3 percentile-rank changes of +5.6 (reading), -4.5 (language), +11.6 (math total), and +12.8 (math concepts). Most schools, however, gain every spring and fall back the next autumn. Indeed, as PGH report in a subsequent paper, by fall 1997 no significant gains for Hope students were observed in math concepts and no gains were observed in language. (Significant gains were still observed in total math and reading scores.15) More important, for changes in test scores to be meaningful, a carefully chosen comparison group must also be tested. The September 1997 PGH analysis had no such comparison group. Instead, it made a comparison to low-income Milwaukee voucher applicants whose results were not from the same test used by the Hope schools. The September 1997 PGH evaluation is so flawed that it contributes little if anything to an understanding of how voucher programs might affect student achievement.

Continue with the Next Section Official Evaluation Results for CSTP