School Vouchers – Top 4 Pros and Cons

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School vouchers are state- or school district-funded scholarships that allow students to attend a private school of the family’s choice rather than sending the child to public school.

According to EdChoice, in the 2018-2019 school year, 18 states and DC had one or more voucher programs: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin. At least 188,424 students received vouchers that school year. [21]

Though two state voucher programs have existed since the 19th century–Vermont (1869) and Main (1873)–the current debate began with the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, instituted in 1990. [21]

In 2002, the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Ohio’s Cleveland Scholarship Program in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. The ruling held that the voucher program did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, even if vouchers were used for religious schools. [22]

Should States Have School Voucher Programs?

Pro 1

Vouchers allow parents to choose their child’s education.

Parents pay taxes for education and should be able to use those tax dollars to educate their children however and at whichever school they want.

Chuck Weisenbach, Principal of Roncalli High, a private high school in Indianapolis, stated. “It is not the government’s responsibility to tell me where to educate my children… That’s not only my right, it’s my duty. And I shouldn’t have the government telling me based on some random, geographic location that I have to go to this public high school.” [4]

Vouchers also allow parents to choose a school that best fits a child’s religious, cultural, or racial background, allowing that child to perform better in school, at home, and in their community. [18][19]

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Pro 2

School vouchers improve education in general by making public schools compete with private schools for students in a free market.

Public schools will have to offer a better education and safer spaces for learning, and be accountable to parents’ and students’ needs in order to compete with the private schools.

Lennie Jarratt, Project Manager for School Reform at the Heartland Institute, stated, “free markets offer a much better way to hold educational institutions accountable for their failures. Under this model, inadequate schools lose money or are forced to close after consistently failing to perform… Why should we reward terrible schools with an indefinite stream of tax dollars?” [7]

Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, PhD, a champion of the free market, argued for school vouchers in 1955, stating vouchers would result in “great widening in the educational opportunities open to our children.” [17]

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Pro 3

School vouchers allow school districts to overcome racial and other segregations.

Betsy DeVos, US Secretary of Education in the Trump Administration, stated, “Empirical evidence finds school-choice programs lead to more integrated schools than their public-school counterparts.” [15]

School vouchers allow lower-income parents to avoid sending a child to a bad school, a school overwhelmed with gang violence, or a school that lacks racial diversity. A study of Louisiana’s voucher program found that the program reduced racial segregation, a feat in a state with 34 school districts under federal desegregation orders. [6]

Many families use vouchers to avoid the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the phenomenon in which children of color are poorly educated, subjected to racist treatment, and treated like criminals in schools often ruled by gangs. [17] These children deserve better, and vouchers empower students to overcome racial and other disparities in their communities.

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Pro 4

School vouchers offer students in failing schools access to a better education.

Parents who cannot afford homes in neighborhoods with great school districts are often doomed to send their kids to bad schools with less funding, fewer good teachers, and fewer opportunities for students to excel. [8]

The DC voucher program, the only federally-funded school voucher program in the country, increased students’ graduation rates by 21% overall and 28% for female voucher students. [16] Parents of DC voucher recipients reported high levels of satisfaction, felt the school was safer than their public school option, and were more likely to give the school an A or B grade. [16]

EdChoice, an education nonprofit, stated, “The empirical evidence shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools… and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy.” [20]

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Con 1

Tax dollars are intended for the better secular education of all children, not the private religious education of a few.

Using public funds to subsidize religious schools violates the separation of church and state. Of the 14 states with school voucher programs, 11 allow vouchers to be used at religious schools (Maine and Vermont do not). [2]

According to an EdChoice survey of parents who use vouchers, the number one reason parents chose to use vouchers was “religious environment/instruction.” [4]

An estimated 85% of Milwaukee voucher students attended religious schools, with each Catholic school that accepted voucher students getting about $1 million in taxpayer dollars. [13][14

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Con 2

School vouchers funnel money away from already-struggling public schools and children and redistribute tax dollars to private schools and middle-class children.

Superintendent of Fort Wayne, Indiana Schools, Wendy Robinson, Ed.D, calls school vouchers “an assault on public education.” [4][9]

In Indiana the voucher program now costs the state approximately $50 million more in state money going to education costs than originally budgeted. [4] One third of Indiana voucher students were not considered low-income, and, increasingly, the voucher students are from suburban, middle class families who already have access to good public schools. [4] Only 1% of Indiana voucher students were leaving failing schools. [4]

Families who have the means to send their children to private schools should be responsible for the resulting bills instead of taking money from public school kids.

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Con 3

School vouchers fail to accommodate and support disabled and special-needs students.

Public schools are required by law to offer a wide range of free services to students who need extra or enhanced instruction, special services or equipment, or other educational accommodations. Private schools do not have those same requirements.

For example, they do not have to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires things such as wheelchair ramps, note-takers, and sign-language interpreters. [5]

Private schools also don’t have to follow the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires that public schools provide all children with an “ambitious” educational program, rather than the bare minimum. [5] Private schools do not have to accept children with special needs, may require extra fees (billed to the parents) for services, and are under no obligation to follow Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). [5][11]

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Con 4

School vouchers do not improve students’ academic performance.

A 2016 study found “strong and consistent evidence” that school voucher students in Louisiana attending private schools “performed significantly worse in math.” [6] Another study of Louisiana’s program found attendance at a voucher-eligible private school increased the likelihood of a child failing math by 50%, and “negative and large” effects on reading, science, and social studies. [3]

In Milwaukee, researchers found that students using vouchers to attend private schools fared “no better academically than their public school peers.” [2]

In Indianapolis, students who left public schools to attend private Catholic schools with vouchers showed “no benefit” in reading skills, while suffering “moderate and statistically significant average annual losses” in math, while those same students had been improving in public schools. [4]

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Discussion Questions

1. Should states provide voucher programs or increase funding to public schools? Consider both sides but choose one to argue in favor of.

2. Should states allow parents to use vouchers to send children to religiously affiliated schools? Why or why not?

3. Do school vouchers allow children to succeed in better educational environments or leave behind other children to fail in floundering public schools? Explain your answer.

Take Action

1. Analyze the pro position of EdChoice.

2. Explore which states have vouchers and other “school choice” programs with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

3. Consider the argument from Bayliss Fiddiman and Jessica Yin that school vouchers are a “danger” to civil rights.

4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.

5. Push for the position and policies you support by writing US national senators and representatives.


1.National Conference of State Legislatures, “School Vouchers,” (accessed May 15, 2017)
2.National Conference of State Legislatures, “Interactive Guide to School Choice,”, Feb. 3, 2017
3.Claudio Sanchez, “Lessons on Race and Vouchers from Milwaukee,”, May 16, 2017
4.Cory Turner, Eric Weddle, and Peter Balonon-Rosen, “The Promise and Peril of School Vouchers,”, May 12, 2017
5.Anya Kamenetz, “For Families with Special Needs, Vouchers Bring Choices, Not Guarantees,”, May 17, 2017
6.Jonathan N. Mills, Anna J. Egalite, and Patrick J. Wolf, “How Has the Louisiana Scholarship Program Affected Children?,” Education Research Alliance for New Orleans website, Feb. 22, 2016
7.Lennie Jarratt, “The Right of Parents to Choose Their Child’s Education,”, Oct. 6, 2016
8.Emily Runge, “School Choice for Those Who Can Afford It,” Show-Me Institute website, Mar. 2, 2017
9.NPR ED, “The Promise and Peril of School Vouchers,”, May 12, 2017
10.Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Parag A. Pathak, Christopher R. Walters, “Free to Choose: Can School Choice Reduce Student Achievement?,”, Dec. 2015
11.Laura McKenna, “How a New Supreme Court Ruling Could Affect Special Education,”, Mar. 23, 2017
12.Florida Department of Education, “Fact Sheet: McKay Scholarship Program,”, June 2016
13.Chris Weller, “Taxpayer Money Is Keeping Many Catholic Schools Alive, Study Finds,” Business Insider website, Feb. 16, 2017
14.Barbara J. Miner, “The Voucher Boondoggle in Wisconsin,”, June 13, 2013
15.Aria Bendix, “Do Private-School Vouchers Promote Segregation?,” The Atlantic, Mar. 22, 2017
16.US Department of Education, “Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program,”, June 2010
17.Milton Friedman, “The Role of Government in Education,”, 1955
18.National Education Association, “Debate: Should Parents Have a Say in Picking Their Child’s Teacher?,”, Feb. 2017
19.Anya, Kamenetz, “Study Finds Students of All Races Prefer Teachers of Color,”, Oct. 7, 2016
20.Lori Higgins, “Can School Vouchers Give Kids a Shot at a Better Education?,”, Jan. 14, 2017
21.EdChoice, "School Choice Fast Facts and Statistics," (accessed Nov. 18, 2020)
22.Legal Information Institute, "ZELMAN V. SIMMONS-HARRIS (00-1751) 536 U.S. 639 (2002)," (accessed Nov. 18, 2020)