School Vouchers: analysis of the controversy

2004 Ellen Stanley


edited 4/2/20

"As the U.S. Senate gave final congressional approval last week to a school voucher initiative for the nation's capital, supporters vowed to have the program up and running by fall, while opponents pledged to do their best to derail it" (Hendrie, January 29, 2004, p. 1).   Such has been the controversy surrounding the use of vouchers as one solution to 'failing' public school performance.  The topic stirs great emotion and opposing sides tout sloganistic phrases like 'effective schooling', 'school choice', and constitutional rights' as they argue their points.   This particular issue is truly controversial as it is clouded by misunderstandings of language, fact, and value: each side arguing the 'true' meaning of the terms, questioning the reliability and source of facts presented, and citing positive or negative impacts to valued 'American' rights.  Both sides refuse to conform or even modify their positions. Instead, digging in their heels, they vow to fight for 'victory' or at least the 'derailment' of the opposing side.

     This paper will strive to present a description of current issues surrounding the voucher program and what is known about its ability to positively effect student achievement.  It will begin with a brief description of 'voucher' history, go on to describe proponents and opponents, and then address areas of specific controversy according to the analysis framework described by Clabaugh and Rozycki (2002) in Analyzing Controversy.


      "It is often assumed that educational vouchers are a relatively recent phenomenon, rare outside the U.S.  However, educational voucher programs are in place throughout the world, and they have been discussed in the United States from the nation's inception.  In this country, the basic idea can be traced to Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1788) and Thomas Pain's The Rights of Man (1969)" (Metcalf & Legan, 2002, p. 2). 

Both authors emphasize the need to equalize the playing field for students, arguing that the government should financially assist lower income families thus allowing their children the same educational advantages as those children whose descent is from wealthy backgrounds.  Milton Friedman, an economist, also supported the 'voucher system'.  He presented an educational market theory in 1955 that compared education to consumable market goods.  His theory suggested that all families be given an educational grant, equal in dollar amount, which they would then use to pay for education at the school of their choice.  His reasoning correlates to that stated by Tyack (1999) "the case for choice and vouchers has a classic simplicity: if parents have vouchers and can choose the schools their children attend, there will be competition in the educational marketplace, and that will produce a quality product (effective learning, measured as high test scores).  Providers will create what consumers want" (p.3).  Friedman's theory provides an important foundation for claims used to justify current voucher proposals. (Cook, 2004, Metcalf & Legan, 2002).

     There are three voucher programs currently in operation with two others slated to begin in September of 2004.  Each continues to face legal battles.  Milwaukee's program started in 1990 and is the longest running program to date.  During the 2002-2003 school year they served 12,950 students living in the city of Milwaukee.  Eligibility criteria included an income cap of 175 percent of the federal poverty level.  Cleveland started its use of vouchers in 1996 and had 5,200 students enrolled during the 2002-2003 school year.  Eligibility for their program is determined during a student's K-3 years but once qualified, the student can continue use of vouchers through the 10th grade.  Priority is given to families who fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Florida is currently the only statewide program.  They utilize three alternative funding programs, all having slightly different eligibility criteria.  During the 2002-2003 school year the A+ Opportunity Scholarships program served 663 students from public schools that have consistently failed state and federal educational requirements. McKay Scholarships are available to special education students and served 12,200 students during this time. Corporate Income Tax Scholarships of $3,500 were provided to between 14 and 16 thousand students of low income families during 2002-2003.   Denver, Colorado and Washington DC are both gearing up for the coming 2004-2005 school year.   Although they plan to provide service next year, court appeals leave one wondering if current rulings will remain unchanged (Cook, 2004).

Proponents and Opponents

     To understand proponents and opponents of the voucher initiative, Kennedy (2001) states that you should understand ground and air war strategies of political campaigns.  The ground war seeks to execute political strategy by increasing the number of supporting troops, in other words, building a coalition, while the air war becomes the dissemination of party rhetoric (their position and ideology) via various electronic media.  She argues that understanding one strategy without understanding the other will skew the overall picture of the entire campaign.  She also suggests that the educational voucher program is just one more issue upon which political parties hope to garner support.  She writes:

'The politics of liberal democracies is the politics of faction...Individuals have economic interests, social goals, and political and religious beliefs that are affected by public policies and so motivate political behavior.  In order to appreciate the dynamics of the voucher ground war, it helps to identify some of the most prominent stakeholders and the interests they seek to advance, because, as John Witte has noted, "The battle over vouchers may have more to do with money and with the allocation of power than with education.'" (Kennedy, 2001, p. 2).

     Whether one agrees with Kennedy's (2001) position and/ or the subsequent claim by Witte, her identification of major stakeholders is born out by their public support or opposition to the voucher system.  She lists proponents of the voucher program as: Pro-market libertarians who feel schools should prepare students to be competitive in the market place, the business field stresses the importance of competition in order to provide best service at the lowest cost, the Christian Right is concerned for moral education, and the Catholic Church is the primary private school benefiting financially.

     Kennedy lists opponents to the voucher program as: the education establishment who want to see public schools survive...for obvious reasons, Civil libertarians and church/state separationists who stress the need to maintain separation of these institutions, and African American organizations  who feel vouchers will create a set-back to integrated schools.

     According to Clive Belfield, associate director for research at the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, "It's a puzzling alignment...[t]he political support for vouchers comes largely from the right, even though the biggest losers economically are the families from the wealthy suburbs.  The opposition comes from the left, even though the biggest winners are students from low-income families" (Cook, Jan. 2004. p.1).

Content Analysis:

Problems of Understanding 

     It is important to note that problems of understanding include terms that are considered sloganistic because they are vague enough to mean different things to involved parties yet appear to lay people as though broad consensus is being reached.  Intentional use of positive wording in effect creates a pseudo-solution because it looks like opposing parties are in agreement; after all, they are using the same terms.  It is here that the analysis framework comes into play.  When one is able to identify whether the involved parties agree on meanings or definitions, it becomes easier to understand whether issues are even resolvable (Clabaugh & Rozycki, 2002).    

      Before introducing key 'voucher' terminology, it is important to identify the one term that appears to garner broad consensus across party lines.  That term is 'voucher' and it "currently describes programs that provide families with funds to defray the cost of tuition in the public or private school of their choice" (Metcalf & Legan, 2002, p. 2).  Other terms that raise understanding issues are listed below:

    Public good - Kennedy (2001) describes opposing interpretations of the term 'public good' when she writes:

"privatization theory defines that good solely as achievement of a level of competence sufficient to sustain economic growth and make America competitive in the global marketplace.  Critics of educational privatization quarrel with this definition, arguing that before the state relinquishes control of the American educational apparatus, citizens must carefully consider the roles schools are to play.  If the "public good" requires more than the transmission of literacy and technical knowledge sufficient to support economic growth and individual self-sufficiency, if it requires instead the creation of a political community, a process of creating unum from our pluribus, then the utility of vouchers becomes problematic" ( p.7).

     She states that historically the creation of a 'common school' (public school) meant that public good was realized when the education of students was the concern and responsibility of the community, not just the parents. 

    Effective schooling - Kennedy (2001) cites a description of effective schooling proposed by Chubb and Moe in their book Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. She indicates their premise is that effective schooling should be measured by how students score academically in the areas of language, math, and science because they feel that these skills are necessary "to sustain economic growth and make America competitive in the global marketplace" (p. 7). This reification of America not only assumes the consensus model of society, but also leans heavily toward the factory model of education where the primary goal is to efficiently produce students capable of performing well on standardized tests. 

     An opponent to the voucher system, Barber (as cited by Kennedy, 2001), proposes that effective schooling is accomplished by providing students with "environments that teach our young how to encounter, understand, and go beyond difference- how to fashion American unity out of our incredible diversity" (p.7).   His reification of 'American unity' also indicates a belief in the consensus model of society and although he supports literacy and competence, he presents his preference for the quality of an education not the quantity of knowledge learned in an efficient 'factory' model of schooling.  His schooling model of choice would probably include elements of all but lean more heavily toward the temple and town meeting models. 

     School choice - Thought by some to just be a friendlier term describing vouchers, Metcalf and Legan (2002) state that vouchers are actually only one of many options available to parents when it comes to school choice.  In conjunction with tax credits and sometimes charter schools, however, vouchers certainly seem to cause the most debate.  In a position paper Tyack (1999) states that "[w]hen conservatives today speak of "choice," they have in mind choice of schools by individual parents" (p.1).  He claims that 'choice' can in fact have other meanings.  He describes those when he writes:

"Communities make collective choices about education by electing school boards that set educational policy, and by voting school budgets and bonds up or down.  Religious congregations may choose to create sectarian schools for their children.  Students make individual choices about their education by choosing among the electives offered at their high school.  One form of choice may come at the expense of another; under a parental voucher system, the non-parents in the community would be effectively stripped of their capacity to make democratic choices about the schools they pay for" (Tyack, 1999, p. 1).

     Constitutionality - The argument for and against the use of government monies to fund the voucher program provokes strong emotional response in many people.  It is based primarily upon historical rulings regarding the First Amendment doctrine of the separation of church and state.  Metcalf and Legan (2002) set forth that "[t]he notion of using public funds to support educational choices that include private schools is the most dramatic of several school choice alternatives.  It also represents what some believe is the most serious contemporary challenge to our nation's historic approach to public education (p.1).  Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass has publicly opposed vouchers for some time and recently spoke about the newest congressional ruling that approved federal funding of a voucher program in D.C.  "The administration couldn't pass a voucher provision honestly, so they've attached it to an omnibus appropriations bill to avoid a vote to eliminate it" (Hendrie, 2004, p.2).  This tactic is a prime example of one sides attempt to delegitimize the opposing side.  He goes beyond simply describing the event and attaches a very negative characterization of the opposing party: in fact, calling them dishonest.  His evaluation of the situation may or may not be true but the fact that he is using the media to assert his position is evidence of the 'air war strategy' mentioned by Kennedy and described earlier in the paper.

Problems of Fact:

     A primary problem of fact is the inflexible position each side must take to maintain power or position.  It is believed that both proponents and opponents accept the 'source' authority of the Constitution; however, they question the 'interpretive' power of the local, state, and federal justices. This in and of itself translates into continual challenges to any rulings that have to do with vouchers.  Voucher programs already in place are generally allowed to continue operation as they go through appeal processes.  However, if a program is not yet in place, planners are forced to hold off implementation until further review by the courts.

Such is the case in Colorado where proponents initially celebrated a newly passed voucher bill, but due to an appeal and subsequent ruling by Judge Meyer find themselves at a standstill while their appeal of the ruling awaits review.  Judge Meyer's ruling stated that "[t]he goals of the voucher program are laudable, and providing vouchers so that select children may use public funds to attend private schools may be an effective means of addressing the educational disparities the General Assembly has recognized... [h]owever, even great ideas must be implemented within the framework of the Colorado Constitution (Cook, Jan. 2004, p.6).  In other words, his interpretation differs from that of the legislators voting the bill's approval and given his position (power and authority), he is able to overrule the current standing.  Proponents in Colorado refuse to be discouraged, instead exercising their right to appeal, they hope for a positive outcome from a different interpretive authority.   Opponents are obviously pleased with the latest ruling in Colorado but realize that continued legal debate is inevitable.

Problems of Value:

     Metcalf and Legan (2002) state that "advocates and opponents frequently note the same potential effects of vouchers but perceive those effects differently" (p.4).   Thus each side will view the cost and benefits in a different light.  With this said, Metcalf and Legan present opposing positions to three aspects of schooling impacted with the implementation of vouchers.  They are: equal opportunity for all students, civic tolerance, and educational quality.  

     Equal opportunity - Proponents argue that vouchers level the playing field by giving low income families the same opportunities middle and upper class families already enjoy, that of 'choice'.  They also state increased opportunity for schools to diversify.  Opponents cite research they say proves vouchers erode pluralism in education as more students are given the opportunity to go to private schools.  Kushner (2002) cites information from a Harvard research project that "48 percent of black students in Catholic schools and 44 percent in other religious schools encounter a heavily segregated educational experience, meaning that fewer than 10 percent of students in their schools are white (p. 1). 

     Civic tolerance - Proponents assert parental responsibility and right to teach and expose their children to specific values.  Arguing that they should be able to choose private schooling if they question values taught in public schools.  Opponents rebut this by insisting that vouchers will erode pluralism in education and the best way for students to develop tolerance and a sense of community is to be exposed to diverse cultures and experiences at the school level.

     Educational quality - As mentioned early in the paper, proponents assert that competition will only increase the quality of education as schools compete to retain or attract students.  They wonder if schools would look for innovative ways to maintain student interest and thus increase learning.  Opponents argue that competition would actually force schools to return to the more traditional methods of teaching (facts, teacher-directed) in order to increase test scores (Metcalf & Legan, 2002).


     Participants actively involved in the controversy surrounding the voucher system would agree that 'conflict' is natural and unavoidable when groups or parties are in competition for limited resources.  Whereas the parties might initially exhibit broad but shallow consensus as they verbalize agreement to a positively phrased slogan such as 'no child left behind',  attempts to implement an actual plan generally dissolve into disputes about the 'real' meanings of  words, authenticity of facts, and what costs or benefits are realized with implementation.  If and when one side takes the lead in a position of power questionable professional behaviors sometimes lead to outright hostility.  The controversy surrounding vouchers provides and excellent example of the conflict model of society.

     An analysis of several studies of publicly funded voucher programs was initiated by The Center on Education Policy.  The panel participants included nationally known proponents and opponents of vouchers.  Although the panel was unable to "reach consensus about a large-scale evaluation, did identify other tasks it could do to advance the state of voucher research" (Kober, 2000, p. 11).  The findings and recommendations were then compiled by Kober into a report titled School vouchers: What we know and don't know...and how we could learn more.  

One of the primary problems included a lack of actual data.  Because most private schools are not mandated to even test their students with standardized tests, the panel had to rely on schools and families who voluntarily provided information.  Research studies performed by independent firms in each of the three currently running voucher programs resulted in "mixed conclusions about whether students who use vouchers improve their achievement compared with students who remain in public school."  "Some researchers have found no significant improvement in the achievement of students who use vouchers; others have found gains in one or two areas, such as mathematics or vocabulary; and others have found significant gains across more than one subject" Kober, 2000, p. 20).  Obviously the lack of reliable, valid data prevents anyone from legitimately claiming 'proof', but there is at least a baseline of information.  The Center has recommended several actions that could provide important data that either validates or disproves claims that vouchers improve student academic achievement.    


     Whether one is a proponent or opponent to vouchers in the educational system, it appears that research data is so vague that both sides are able to use it to argue their points.  There is broad consensus that there are problems within the system that must be addressed but without valid, reliable data, it is impossible to make informed decisions as to the value of voucher programs.  If vouchers are to be used and if private schools are receiving public monies, then it seems only reasonable to require they meet the same standards as public schools both in achievement and in reporting assessment results.   With that said, the author understands that this statement alone would (and has) provoked controversy and so the misunderstandings of language, fact, and value continue. 


Clabaugh, Gary K., Rozycki, Edward G. (2003). Analyzing Controversy (2nd Edition). Oreland, PA: New Foundations Press.

Cook, Glenn. (2003). Vouchers, choice, and controversy: Are school vouchers a good idea?  [Electronic version]. American School Board Journal. Retrieved January 29, 2004 from

Hendrie, Caroline. (January 28, 2004). Federal plan for vouchers clears Senate. [Electronic version]. Education Week.  Retrieved January 29, 2004 from

Kennedy, Sheila Suess. (Feb 2001). Privatizing education: The politics of vouchers.  [Electronic version]. Phi Delta Kappan. 82, 6. Retrieved January 28, 2004 from

Kober, Nancy. (2000). School vouchers: What we know and don't know...and how we could learn more. [Electronic version] Center on Education Policy Report. Retrieved April 3, 2004 from

Kushner, Adam G. (2002). The other case against vouchers. [Electronic version] American Prospect Online. Retrieved April 2, 2004 from

Metcalf, Kim K., Legan, Natalie A. (Sep/Oct, 2002). Educational vouchers: A primer. [Electronic version]. The Clearing House. 76, 1.  Retrieved January 28, 2004 from

Tyack, David. (January 1009). Choice options: School choice, yes-but what kind? [Electronic version]. American Prospect Online. Retrieved April 2, 2004 from