The subject of school vouchers has always been a hot button topic. One side of the public argument believes that all students should have access to public education dollars, regardless of what type of school they attend. The other side is absolutely against any group but public schools using the funds. The interesting thing is that there are people on either side of the debate who really have no idea what a school voucher program is or who benefits from the redistribution of public education funding.
This article will define school vouchers as an education tool, explain who benefits and who does not, and provide some food for thought for parents who may be considering applying for a school voucher program.
SCHOOL VOUCHERS DEFINED
School voucher programs basically provide public education funding to parents for the purpose of paying tuition costs at a private school of their choice – often including religiously affiliated private schools. A very few states allow the funding to be used for expenses associated with homeschooling programs.
The first modern day school voucher program started in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1990. Since that time, numerous programs have started in school districts across America. Simply stated, school vouchers are state-and-local government tax dollars the are diverted from public schools for the purpose of subsidizing tuition costs at private and religious schools. The only federally funded school voucher program is in Washington, DC.
WHAT IS “SCHOOL CHOICE?”
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) defines School Choice in this way:
“The term ‘school choice’ describes an array of elementary and secondary educational options available to students and their families. Parents can send their children to the public schools designated for their home address, or they may have other options within the public school system such as to enroll their children in charter schools or to apply for enrollment in other public schools.
Parents can also choose to send their children to private schools, which can be either religious or nonsectarian. Additionally, parents can choose to homeschool their children instead of enrolling them in a public or private school.” (SOURCE: School Choice in the United States: 2019))
Anayat Durrani, writing for U.S. News on April 14, 2023, defines school choice in this way:
“In some areas, families can use public money to access schools beyond their local option.” Durrani goes on to say that “Most parents send their children to their neighborhood public school. But other education options exist, including public charter, magnet, private, parochial, and online schools, as well as homeschooling.” Amy Smith, interim dean of the school of education at Minnesota’s University of St. Thomas adds that “At its core, school choice is really about parents and guardians having the ability to choose, regardless of how these options are funded.” (SOURCE: What School Choice Is and How it Works | K-12 Schools | U.S. News (usnews.com))
WHO IS ELIGIBLE FOR SCHOOL VOUCHER FUNDING?
Almost all voucher programs limit eligibility. The most often targeted groups eligible for the funding include:
- Students with disabilities, (Students With Disabilities (edweek.org))
- Students zoned to a failing school, and
- Students from low-income families. (Low-Income Students (edweek.org))
- Some states (i.e., Indiana) have expanded their program to include middle-income families.
As of January 2023, school vouchers or similar programs are an option in thirty-two states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, and they are becoming more common.
Some states label vouchers as “scholarships” that provide all or part of the state’s public per-pupil funding to pay for private school. Education Savings Accounts (ESA) and Tax Credit Scholarships are also considered to be types of “credit” or “voucher” programs. In some states, private school vouchers can also be used to cover the costs of homeschooling. (NOTE: Public schools and charter schools are both part of the public education system and are funded by state and local taxpayer dollars.) To learn more about voucher programs, ESAs, Tax Credit Scholarships and Individual K-12 tax credits and deductions, visit the EdChoice site at: School Choice Fast Facts and Statistics (edchoice.org).
AN ONGOING DEBATE
One of the major issues around school voucher programs is that children in affluent families who can afford private-school tuition, are seen as having an unfair advantage based on the fact they have more choices available when considering which schools to attend. Lower-income families generally have no options other than attending local public schools. School voucher programs were originally designed to help balance this inequity.
Supporters of school vouchers and other school choice programs say they provide options and opportunities to low-income students who might otherwise be forced to attend low-performing schools. Supporters also say that voucher programs create a situation where schools are more accountable to parents rather than to the federal or state government. In addition, advocates believe that, in a school voucher atmosphere, schools will have to perform better to attract students.
On the other hand, opponents believe that funding being used for voucher programs would be much better spent if the dollars were used to directly improve public schools. The National Education Association/NCA (the union that represents three million educators) declares on its website that “vouchers undermine strong public education and student opportunity. They take scarce funding from public schools – which serve 90% of students – and give it to private schools – institutions that are not accountable to taxpayers.”
PARENTS NEED TO KNOW
According to the American Federation for Children, vouchers offer an average of approximately $4,600/year. Educationdata.org reports that average annual tuition at a U.S. private K-12 school is about $12,500 – which runs even higher in some states. (SOURCE: Average Cost of Private School : Tuition by Education Level (educationdata.org))
It’s important for parents to be aware that, just because they have qualified for a school choice or education voucher program, it does not mean they will be reimbursed for the full cost of moving their student to a private or other school. And, in fact, the voucher may cover substantially less than half of the annual costs, leaving the parents to pay the remaining dollars out of their own pockets.
CLOSING: To learn whether your state participates in any of the school choice/voucher options, contact your local school district offices. Individual states interpret “school voucher program” in different ways and have varying rules that define and frame the programs. In addition, more and more states are offering similar School Choice opportunities, so available opportunities may change frequently.