State Policy Network
What are school vouchers?

With schools reopening across the country, millions of American students are heading back to the classroom. And while many are on their way to a school that gives them the tools to succeed in life, millions are not. In fact, there are thousands of underperforming public schools across the country—each one filled with struggling students who are not getting the quality education they deserve.

Every child in every community deserves a quality education that prepares them for college, a career, and life. School vouchers are just one way to reach that goal.

What are school vouchers?

Vouchers are state-funded scholarships that parents can use to send their children to private school, including religious schools. Usually for low-income families or families that live in a district with a failing school, school vouchers are a way to ensure all children, regardless of how much money their family makes, have access to a good education.

When did school voucher programs start?

Wisconsin passed the first traditional school choice program that used school vouchers in 1989 to help low-income families in Milwaukee. Since then, more and more states have created voucher programs, and each state program is unique.

What states have school vouchers?

Sixteen states, as well as Washington DC, and Puerto Rico have school voucher programs. Indiana has the largest school voucher program, serving 34,000 students.

How are school vouchers different than Education Savings Accounts?

School vouchers are government-funded credits parents can use to pay for private school tuition. Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are state-supervised funds that parents can use to pay for a wide variety of education options, including private school tuition. Parents can use ESAs for online learning, textbooks, and even services and therapies for students with disabilities—whatever their child most needs to thrive.

Do vouchers improve student performance?

The research is mixed. A study from the Economic Policy Institute found gains in student achievement from vouchers are at best small. An analysis from the Brookings Institution noted that on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. However, as EdChoice points out, the majority of research finds there’s a strong link between school vouchers and gains in student achievement, attainment and civic participation, especially in the long term. The DC voucher program, for example, increased students’ graduation rates by 21 percent.

What are the benefits of school voucher programs?

Vouchers, like other school choice programs, empower parents to make the best educational choices for their children. Every child has unique learning needs. Vouchers give parents—especially parents from low-income families—another education option for their child.

Nikisha Thompson’s family is a great example of how voucher programs help more students reach their potential. Nikisha is a mother of four who lives in Washington DC. She did not believe her public school could give her children the education they need and deserve. But Nikisha couldn’t afford to send her four kids to private school. That’s why she applied to DC’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. Through that voucher program, Nikisha’s four kids were able to attend and receive a good education at St. Thomas More Catholic school. Her oldest son graduated high school and is on his way to college. Nikisha added: “The only weapon I can give my kids is a proper education. The program has been a milestone for us because we’re able to get the quality education.”

School vouchers allow lower-income parents like Nikisha to have a choice in where their children go to school. Through a voucher program, the Thompsons had access to the same education opportunities as wealthier families.

Another benefit that proponents of school vouchers point to is the benefits of competition and how vouchers incentivize public schools to improve. When more public school students have the option of attending higher-performing private schools, public schools have to improve in order to attract students. One study foundincreases in private school competition don’t hurt public school test scores and often improve them.

Vouchers also help children with disabilities. Many public schools, through no fault of their own, do not have the resources to accommodate a child with special needs. Private schools often do. Vouchers give families with disabilities the opportunity to attend a private school that fits their child’s individual needs.

What are the arguments against school vouchers?

Opponents of school vouchers argue these programs divert money away from struggling public schools. When taxpayer dollars that would normally go to public schools now go to a voucher program, public schools have less resources—leading to bigger class sizes and less money for textbooks and other education materials.

But as EdChoice points out, state lawmakers allocate education dollars on a “per pupil” basis. If a parent chooses to send their child to public school, the money will follow.

Other opponents point out that when a family uses vouchers to send their child to a religious school, that violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. However, a recent Supreme Court Caase—Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue—said that states banning religious schools from school choice programs is a violation of freedom of religion secured by the First Amendment.

How can parents apply for a voucher in their state?

If you live in one of the states that offer school vouchers, you can visit the voucher program’s website for information on eligibility criteria and participating private schools. The American Federation for Children created a helpful resource that lists all the available state voucher programs.

Additional Resources

School Vouchers

School Vouchers 101: What They Are, How They Work — And Do They Work?

School Choice: Vouchers
National Conference of State Legislatures

Everything you need to know about Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)
State Policy Network

Microschools: Explained
State Policy Network

Policy Issues: K-12 Education
Organization: State Policy Network