A program to provide government money to parents to subsidize tuition for their children at private schools.
School voucher systems have been proposed in several states and cities across the nation and is part of a larger movement toward school choice. The choice movement advocates abolishing strict school district lines, allowing parents to enroll their children in any public school in the area, creating so-called "magnet" schools with special programs to attract bright students and similar "charter" schools with more autonomy than a traditional public school. School vouchers, therefore, extend the choice concept. Using a voucher of state money to subsidize tuition, parents would also be able to send their children to private or religious schools. While other aspects of the school choice agenda have been implemented in many school districts, including Los Angeles and Chicago, the voucher system has encountered both legal problems and lack of voter support. A California referendum on school vouchers failed in 1993. The first functioning school choice program, in the Milwaukee school district, remains experimental and limited in scope.
The Milwaukee program began in 1990. At first, it provided money only for lower-income parents to send their children to private, nonsecular schools. Religious schools were not covered because of issues regarding separation of church and state. But the space at nonsecular schools was limited, so in 1995 the Milwaukee voucher system was expanded to include church-run schools as well. The expanded program met immediate legal challenges, and its implementation was blocked by the State Supreme Court. The issue is still not settled.
Even a voucher system that does not include religious schools raises many legal problems. Any school receiving government funds through vouchers is liable to government regulation. A private school participating in the voucher program would likely be required to comply with state and federal laws regarding discrimination, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, due process, and other civil liberties. This means that private schools that distinguish themselves by strict behavior codes, distinctive religious doctrines, or censorship of student expression would be open to legal challenges. Private schools accepting vouchers may also be required to perform more extensive student testing to ensure accountability.
Many critics of the school voucher system fear that compliance with government regulations would eventually transform private schools into quasi-public schools, losing their uniqueness, and the attributes that made them attractive to parents would be eroded. Other critics of voucher plans are afraid that public schools would be harmed. If parents can send their children to private schools, there will be less incentive to repair the many faults of public school systems.
Critics see voucher plans as a way for government to abandon its mission to provide free public education for all, and it is unclear whether districts can save money through voucher plans. Private schools are usually less expensive to run than public schools because teacher salaries are lower, and autonomous schools require less bureaucracy. The bureaucratic requirements would likely change, though, if vouchers were used. Teachers' salary expectations may change also if the nature of the school changes. Some fear that taxpayers would end up supporting two school systems under a voucher program, one public and one private. Voucher systems will likely continue to be controversial until they are more fully tested.
Doyle, Denis P., and Chester E. Finn, Jr. Educational Quality and Family Choice: Toward a Statewide Public School
Harmer, David. School Choice: Why We Need It, How We Get It. Washington, DC: Cato Institue, 1994.
McGroarty, Daniel. Break These Chains: The Battle for School Choice. Rocklin, California: Prima Publishing, 1996.
Skillen, James W. (ed.) The School-Choice Controversy: What Is Constitutional? Washington, DC: Center for Public Justice, 1993.