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School Vouchers

In the current climate of concern over the shortcomings of the public education system, school vouchers are a topic that has stirred a lot of heated debate. This article reviews the pros and cons of school voucher programs.

The school voucher debate is part of the larger discussion about a parent’s right to choose which school his or her child attends. Individuals and organizations on both sides of the school vouchers debate have passionate arguments about whether vouchers are effective, fair, or even legal.

School voucher programs allow parents to use monetary vouchers from the city, state or federal government to pay for their child’s private school education. A few U.S. cities, and many foreign countries, already have school voucher programs in place, and some states are considering voucher programs. The amount of the voucher is generally about the same amount that is granted to public schools for each child’s education. In some cases, school vouchers only go to those who have a lower income or are attending substandard schools, though some school vouchers can be used by anyone at any school. The idea behind either type of program is to allow parents more choices in their children’s education and to provide opportunities to children whose schools are failing them.

School vouchers touch on issues of separation of church and state, parents’ rights to have a choice in their children’s education, and the future of America in the education of its young people. Because these topics are so important in the United States, it is not surprising that they stir a great deal of emotion in people and lead to debates with strong arguments on both sides.

People who support school vouchers claim that:

  • Parents have a right to decide where their children will attend school, regardless of their income. It is not fair that only wealthier students or students who are able to earn scholarships are able to attend private schools.
  • Parents who do send their students to private schools are paying twice for their education; they are paying for the public education system through taxes, but they are also paying for their student’s tuition at a private school.
  • Because schools are supported by tax money, parents have the right to decide how it is spent in the case of their children.
  • People deserve choices in education because families have different needs that may not be met by the current public education system.
  • The government is not doing a satisfactory job running the education system, so it’s time to privatize education.
  • School vouchers would improve the quality of education in America by increasing competition between schools.
  • Vouchers would give disadvantaged young people a chance to experience a better education.

Some people who support vouchers think of them as part of the larger education system, competing alongside a variety of public schools to give parents and students educational choices. Others would prefer to see the entire education system privatized, meaning the government would no longer support any public schools, and vouchers would let parents choose between private schools.

People who oppose school vouchers claim that:

  • School vouchers take money away from public schools, where it is desperately needed to fund educational programs for all students.
  • The majority of private schools are religious, so through school vouchers, tax money would be going to support a religious institution, violating the separation of church and state.
  • School vouchers are elitist and would not benefit all students equally; private schools could still turn away students and discriminate against some groups.
  • School vouchers would serve to further divide America, while public schools help to unite it.
  • Private schools would just increase their tuition if vouchers were instituted, meaning they would make more money, and still turn away poor students.
  • Poor quality private schools would pop up to take advantage of unsuspecting families with school vouchers.

Both sides of the debate look at experimental school voucher programs and argue over whether or not they are successful. Because school voucher programs vary from place to place, they are hard to compare. Some voucher programs seek to eliminate some of the concerns above, such as by requiring private school in the city or state to accept vouchers for the entire cost of tuition, so private schools can’t prevent people from using the vouchers by raising tuition. The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the argument that school vouchers violate the separation of church and state, as long as parents have a free choice in where they use the vouchers, but several state courts have struck down voucher programs because they violate the state constitution. This variation in local programs and laws means that both the efficiency and the legality of vouchers are still open topics for debate, as is the issue of fairness.

Currently only a small percentage families live in areas where school vouchers are an option, but school vouchers are often issues during local, state, and national elections. Parents should carefully weigh the arguments over school vouchers to form their own opinions about them when voting and when deciding if they want to use vouchers, if the program is available to them.

National Education Association, Vouchers [online]
School Choices, A Citizen’s Guide to Education Reform [online]
PBS, NOW with Bill Moyers: Society and Community - American Education, School Vouchers [online]