The Sad Truth About School Vouchers

Will school choice fix our educational system? Many aspects of education can be studied empirically, so I should be able to sit at my computer and find data to answer the question. Right?

If you agreed, either you’ve been smoking pot or you come from another country. The sad truth is this: American party politics are making a mess of what should be a nonpolitical issue.

Here’s the GOP’s official stance on education:

We believe that maintaining a world-class system of primary and secondary education, with high standards, in which all students can reach their potential, is critically important to America’s future. We believe in the power of school choice, that giving parents the ability to send their children to better schools — not keeping them trapped in failing schools — is an important way to enable children to get the quality education they deserve.

Let’s put aside the obvious contradiction — a world-class education system would have no failing schools and therefore no need for school choice — and acknowledge that the Republican platform is advocating abandoning public education in favor of a business model.

Here’s what the Democrats have to say:

Democrats share with all parents the commitment to prepare our children to lead lives of happiness and success. That’s why we’re dedicated to ensuring the next generation has access to a first-rate education and the tools to drive our economy forward. Our country is strongest when our workers are trained with the knowledge and ingenuity to perform at the highest levels. Every child should have the opportunity to reach that horizon and to fulfill the American Dream.

At least the Republican statement was more specific than this wishy-washy collection of emotional words. After citing the history of Democrats’ involvement in education, the Dems offer this detail:

The Obama Administration is working to overhaul the “No Child Left Behind” program and provide teachers with more professional support and resources—while also holding them accountable. President Obama instituted “Race to the Top,” a revolutionary program designed to promote innovation and provide incentives for improvement in education.

Basically, the Democrats prefer reform of the existing system.

So that’s why research related to school choice has become a political issue. Here are some studies on the topic:


  • A 2011 review of other studies found that vouchers improved schools, creating a “win-win” situation. It was published by the Foundation for Educational Choice, a group formed by Milton Friedman, the famous economist. Friedman was the founder of the idea of school choice.
  • A glowing 2010 report cites vast improvements in Sweden’s educational system since school choice was initiated. The report was funded by the Heritage Foundation, a strongly conservative group.
  • A paper called “Education by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006,” gives encouraging statistics about all the money to be saved by school choice without sacrificing quality. It was published by the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation.


  • A 2011 study points out the “Flaws and Failings” in DC’s school choice system. It was published by the left-leaning People for the American Way, which has a stated mission to support public schools.
  • An earlier paper, “False Choices: Why School Vouchers Threaten Our Children’s Future,” was published by Rethinking Education, founded by a group of Wisconsin teachers to support public schools.

Of course, just because a group supports a concept doesn’t mean its research is flawed. But the groups focus on information that supports their opinions.

So let’s look at test scores. Numbers don’t lie, right?

Wrong again. A report by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction showed that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program — the oldest urban school choice program in the country — performed at the same level or lower on standardized tests than students in the public schools. The state Legislative Audit Bureau confirmed the results.

Test scores from Milwaukee Public Schools

But test scores don’t tell the entire story.

Researchers suggest that test score data — by any group — could be skewed by sociological factors. For example, parents who take the initiative to enroll in a voucher program are more active in their children’s education and probably providing other supportive behaviors — reading to their children, home tutoring — that could increase their children’s test scores.

Conversely, since the Milwaukee voucher program targets disadvantaged students, factors other than school quality could be at play in the lower test scores.

The basic differences between public schools and choice schools can also skew test scores. Even without vouchers, students switch from public to private schools, sometimes because they are experiencing academic or disciplinary problems. The private schools have the right to kick a disruptive student back to the public schools. Private schools can also reject students who don’t meet their academic standards. Both situations give private schools the opportunity to pick and choose students, a situation that can affect test scores.

The most comprehensive, unbiased research comes from the University of Arkansas, which created a research center, the School Choice Demonstration Project, “committed to raising and advancing the public’s understanding of the strengths and limitations of school choice policies and programs.” Here is a summary of the findings from the group’s extensive studies of Milwaukee Public Schools:


  • Voucher schools have a lower student/teacher ratio.
  • Schools in both the voucher program and the public system whose students performed poorly on standardized tests were also the ones that closed or no longer received state funds, showing a possible positive effect of school choice on overall educational quality. (However, the researchers cautioned that other socioeconomic factors could also play a role and will continue to monitor the data.)


  • Voucher schools have 6.5 percent fewer minorities than the MPS system.
  • Teachers in voucher schools are less qualified than their public school counterparts with regard to education, certification, and years of experience.
  • On many of the tests and in certain grade levels, students in voucher schools often have lower standardized test scores.

After reviewing numerous other studies, I’ve come to this conclusion: Despite their growing popularity, voucher programs aren’t old enough or large enough to provide us with the cold, hard data we need. In 2006, only 60,000 of 6 million students were in a choice program. That number more than doubled to 150,000 by 2008, but the numbers are still small. Also, states are experimenting with different formats and rules, so consistent studies are difficult.

Conclusions from a detailed study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, first published in the Annual Review of Economics, show that the answers aren’t currently available:

The best research to date finds relatively small achievement gains for students offered education vouchers, most of which are not statistically different from zero. Further, what little evidence exists regarding the potential for public schools to respond to increased competitive pressure generated by vouchers suggests that one should remain wary that large improvements would result from a more comprehensive voucher system. … Many questions remain unanswered, however, including whether vouchers have longer-run impacts on outcomes such as graduation rates, college enrollment, or even future wages, and whether vouchers might nevertheless provide a cost-neutral alternative to our current system of public education provision at the elementary and secondary school level.

So Republicans who say that school choice will save our schools don’t know for sure. Nor do Democrats who say that choice will destroy public schools.

This issue is too important to become political. Our schools are lagging behind. The future looks bleak, with many talented teachers leaving the profession and fewer  young people taking up teaching careers. Both sides need to address the issue of school reform with open minds, not party lines.


Aud, Susan L., and Foundation Milton & Rose D. Friedman. “Education by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006. School Choice Issues in Depth.” Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation (2007): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

“Book finds voucher programs on rise.” Education Daily 41.57 (2008): 5. Education Research Complete. EBSCO. Web. 30 Aug. 2011.

“Flaws and Failings: A Preliminary Look at the Problems Already Encountered in the Implementation of the District of Columbia’s New Federally Mandated School Voucher Program. Special Report.” People For the American Way (2005): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

Forster, Greg, and Choice Foundation for Educational. “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers. Second Edition.” Foundation for Educational Choice (2011): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

“Issues: Education.” Republican National Committee. n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2011.

Lips, Dan, and Foundation Heritage. “School Choice in Sweden: An Interview with Thomas Idergard of Timbro.” WebMemo. No. 2828. Heritage Foundation, 2010. ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

Lowe, Robert, Barbara Miner, and Ltd. Milwaukee, WI. “Rethinking Schools. False Choices: Why School Vouchers Threaten Our Children’s Future.” Rethinking Schools, 1992. ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 25 Aug. 2011.

McShane, Michael Q. and Patrick J. Wolf. “Milwaukee Longitudinal School Choice Evaluation: Annual School Testing Summary Report 2009-10. SCDP Miwaukee Evaluation. Report #26.” University of Arkansas School Choice Demonstration Project (2011). Web. 24 Aug. 2011. Link:

Ramde, Dinesh. “School voucher program: State auditors find little difference in scores from Milwaukee public schools.” Green Bay Press Gazette, 18 Aug. 2011. Web. 23 Aug 23 2011. Link:

Richards, Erin and Amy Hetzner. “Choice schools not outperforming MPS.” JSOnline. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 29 Mar. 2011. Web. 24 Aug. 2011. Link:

Rouse, Cecilia Elena, Lisa Barrow, and IL. Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. “School Vouchers and Student Achievement: Recent Evidence, Remaining Questions. WP 2008-08.” Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (2008): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) University of Arkansas, et al. “The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: Descriptive Report on Participating Schools, 2009-2010. SCDP Miwaukee Evaluation. Report #27.” School Choice Demonstration Project (2011): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 24 Aug. 2011.

“What We Stand For: Education.” Democratic National Committee. n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2011.