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Policy Research - Effects of Voucher Programs Beyond Academic Achievement

By Todd Thomas


Competition and Satisfaction



This section looks at the findings from studies on voucher programs in areas outside of academic achievement.  It must be emphasized once more that the studies and subsequent data available for existing voucher programs vary greatly due in part to the different locations, sizes, and structures of each program.  The variance of data has hence created a major rift between supporters and critics, and there’s much disagreement over what data actually shows and how in turn we should expand voucher programs nationally.



Ideally, voucher systems will lead to competition and improvement when parents act as consumers with a choice of where to place their child in school.  Voucher researcher Jay P. Greene supports and highlights positive voucher data in the face of recent criticisms by Sol Stern that claim vouchers aren’t working due mostly to fact the Milwaukee program has failed to yield better academics.  (Green, 2008) (Stern, 2008)


Greene refutes this claim by pointing to the fact that there are several voucher programs in place across the country and that Stern fails to take into account the positive results from those other structures around America and the world.  Greene also believes that if the design of the voucher program was set up correctly to foster true competition, we would see increased positive results.

“Even the one study that has ever shown that vouchers didn’t improve public schools, the one in D.C., also confirms my ideology. The D.C. program gives cash bribes to the public school system to compensate for lost students, thus undermining the competitive incentives that would otherwise improve public schools – so the absence of a positive voucher impact is just what my ideology would predict.”  (Greene, 2008)


Stern, like many modern policy makers, has given up on voucher ideology succeeding in practice based on the few attempts made, mainly judging on what he’s seen in Milwaukee.

“Most voucher students are still benefiting, true; but no “Milwaukee miracle,” no transformation of the public schools, has taken place. One of the Milwaukee voucher program’s founders, African-American educator Howard Fuller, recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “I think that any honest assessment would have to say that there hasn’t been the deep, wholesale improvement in MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools] that we would have thought.” And the lead author of one of the Milwaukee voucher studies, Harvard political scientist Paul Peterson, told me: “The research on school choice programs clearly shows that low-income students benefit academically. It’s less clear that the presence of choice in a community motivates public schools to improve.” (Stern, 2008)


Stern admits, however, that while results haven’t been overwhelmingly positive,

there is still significant benefit to students involved in voucher programs.


Whether or not school choice brings about a market-like competition to the education world, creating better performing students is an essential concern for all reformers.  Harvard University’s Economist Caroline Hoxby found that achievement generally rises as students change to private or voucher schools and that the public schools have responded constructively to the competition by raising achievement and productivity.  Hoxby’s findings show that not only do these choice schools not cream-skim, but they disproportionately attract poorly-performing public school students. (Hoxby, 2004)

Ohio, a state where voucher programs have been active since 1995, in turn bringing about the pro-voucher 2002 ruling in the case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, has long been one of the key players in the voucher movement.  Springfield Ohio’s public school superintendent, David Estrop, though wary of the seeming lesser accountability in charter and voucher schools, admits that the voucher systems create competition for the public schools to improve, in a world where the public demands choice.

What we’re seeing in education is segmentation of the market.  What we see in all businesses is that consumers are demanding more and more choices.  Any consumer is in a position to make a poor choice.  We face that in education.  Consumers make mistakes when given choices.  But that concept of choice and having the freedom to make that choice is very consistent with the very underlying principle of our country and our economy.  It’s hard to subtract back and say that it’s in some way antithetical to what we’re doing in education.  (Estrop, 2009)


Dr. Estrop seems to accept and embrace, as a public school leader, that school choice is democratic and here to stay.  Parents may not always make a wise choice, but choice systems, whether voucher or charter schools, though potentially risky, are the growing trend in America, and satisfy the ideology of market-based choice leading to overall improvement that appeals to many parents and reformers alike.




Tied directly to the options for a parent in a voucher program, are the satisfaction of such a choice and the dangers behind this freedom.  Estrop finds that in Ohio, some parents are prone to exacerbate their child’s education woes by moving them about to different schools in hopes to find the right fit, leading them to fall further behind.  However, parents are overwhelmingly happy with having that choice, beneficial to their children or not. (Estrop, 2009)

The only data widely accepted as fact, and proven in nearly every study, is that when parents are given choice in their children’s education, they are more satisfied.  Patrick Wolf claims that “this school voucher impact has been confirmed in all five random assignment studies that explored the question of parental satisfaction.” (Wolf, 2008)

The exact reasons behind this satisfaction are less obvious.  Wolf’s study of the District of Columbia School Choice Incentive, the first federally funded private school voucher program, found that parental satisfaction was much higher for families benefiting from private school scholarships.  The reasons he could pin-point, for parents giving the schools generally A and B grade assignments, were that they saw the schools as having improved climates: mainly safer and more orderly.  Interestingly, however, student perception of climate and safety remained steady for the students moving from public to private school voucher schools. (Wolf, DC 2009)

The most common and measurable piece of data linked to parental satisfaction is that voucher schools tend to be smaller than the public schools: “Students offered a scholarship experienced schools that were smaller by an average of 182 students” (Wolf, DC 2009)  This, in turn, should lead to more individualized attention in the classroom. Additional reasons for parental satisfaction come from the fact most voucher schools are often religious institutions with an environment perceived to be safer, more academic, and with better parent-teacher relations. (Wolf, 2008)




 Jay P. Greene sees the financial benefits of voucher programs as significant, often helping not only the students who leave to find a better school, but helping the public school who then has more funding to spread around to remaining students.


“Because almost all vouchers are worth significantly less than the per pupil cost of education in public schools, these programs tend to increase the resources available per pupil in the public schools.  Sometimes the voucher is capped at the tuition amount in a private school, which can be lost than its average cost per pupil.  In those cases, the private schools are actually losing some money for each student they admit with a voucher.  There is some evidence that this has been an issue in DC where a number of Catholic schools switched to being charter schools because the charter funding was much more generous than the voucher.”  (Greene Interview, 2009)


The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) published a report on school vouchers in 2001 that looks at both the Cleveland and Milwaukee programs.  Financially, each program is different: In Cleveland, “local school revenues are not based on enrollments.  Consequently, when students leave public schools to attend private schools, the public school retains the same amount of local revenue and thus has a higher expenditure of local funds per pupil.”  In Milwaukee, however, revenues are based on enrollment.  (GAO, 2001)

GAO’s report also states that Ohio provides less revenue for each voucher student than for each public school student.  This is seen in several areas due to the private school tuitions being generally lower.

Stern fights back against the voucher movement due to the fear there are not enough private schools to handle increased numbers of students. 

“Voucher prospects have also dimmed because of the Catholic schools’ deepening financial crisis. Without an abundant supply of good, low-cost urban Catholic schools to receive voucher students, voucher programs will have a hard time getting off the ground, let alone succeeding. But cash-strapped Catholic Church officials are closing the Church’s inner-city schools at an accelerating rate [see “Save the Catholic Schools!,” Spring 2007]. With just one Catholic high school left in all of Detroit, for instance, where would the city’s disadvantaged students use vouchers even if they had them? (Stern, 2008)





School choice and, in turn private education, Wolf argues, aids in offering not only a better education but stronger lessons in civic values.  These values, according to Wolf’s studies, are political tolerance, voluntarism, political knowledge, political participation, social capital, civic skills, and patriotism.  The potential cause for this enhanced civic education Wolf places on the nature of Catholic schooling, the main variety of private school accepting vouchers. 

“One theory is that schools of choice foster strong education communities typified by regular parental involvement and a concern for the welfare of all members…Teachers in private schools may be freer to infuse instruction with moral values and discuss controversial issues than public school teachers.” (Wolf, Civics 2009) 


Wolf also proposes that public charter and private schools tend to be more strict educational institutions than public schools, run with a generally higher level of order and discipline.  He goes on to say, however, that under a larger-scale school choice system, that results would likely change as the demographic composition of the schools grew and changed.  This uncertainty of scaling up on small successes is a concern for any reform, no matter the existing encouraging data. (Wolf, Civics 2009)







Estrop, David.  Interview 11/18/2009


Greene, Jay P “Vouchers, Evidence and Ideology” June 2008



Greene, Jay P. Interview 11/17/2009



GAO, “Publicly Funded Programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee”, August 2001



Hoxby, Caroline "School Choice and School Competition: Evidence from the United 

        States”, working paper, Harvard University, 2004



Stern, Sol  “School Choice Isn’t Enough”. 2008




Wolf, Patrick.  “Civics Exam: Schools of Choice Boost Civic Values.  Education Next,      

       2009. http://educationnext.org/civics-exam/


Wolf, Patrick. “Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After Three Years” US Dept. of Education, March 2009.



Wolf, Patrick. School Voucher Programs: “What the Research Says About Parental

      School Choice” Red Orbit, 2008.


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