What Are Vouchers?

teacher surrounded by students

 Getty Images / Kris Connor

For decades, parents had no choice when confronted with a failing public school. Their only option was to continue sending their children to a bad school or move to a neighborhood that had good schools. Vouchers are an attempt to redress that situation by channeling public funds into scholarships or vouchers so that children have the option of attending private school. Needless to say, voucher programs have caused much controversy. 

School Vouchers

School vouchers are essentially scholarships that serve as payment for education at a private or parochial K-12 school when a family chooses not to attend the local public school. This type of program offers a certificate of government funding that parents can sometimes take advantage of if they opt to not attend the local public school. Voucher programs often fall under the category of "school choice" programs. Not every state participates in a voucher program. 

Let's go a little deeper and look at how the different types of schools are funded.

  • Private schools are funded privately, as in, not by government funds. Private schools rely on tuition dollars and charitable giving from current families, alumni, faculty, trustees, past parents, and friends of the school.
  • Public schools are public educational institutions and are funded by taxes.
  • Charter schools get the best of both worlds and are operated as private institutions, but still receive public funding. 

Thus, the Voucher Programs that exist essentially offer parents the option to remove their children from failing public schools or public schools that cannot meet the needs of the student, and instead, enroll them in private schools. These programs take the form of vouchers or outright cash for private schools, tax credits, tax deductions and contributions to tax-deductible education accounts.

It's important to note that private schools are not required to accept vouchers as a form of payment. And, private schools are required to meet the minimum standards established by the government in order to be eligible to accept voucher recipients. Since private schools are not required to adhere to federal or state requirements for education, there may be inconsistencies that prohibit their ability to accept vouchers. 

Where Funding for Vouchers Come From

Funding for vouchers comes from both private and government sources. Government-funded voucher programs are considered controversial by some for these main reasons.

  1. In the opinion of some critics, vouchers raise the constitutional issues of separation of church and state when public funds are given to parochial and other religious schools. There's also the concern that vouchers reduce the amount of money available to public school systems, many of which already struggle with adequate funding.
  2. For others, the challenge to public education goes to the core of another widely held belief: that every child is entitled to free education, regardless of where it takes place. 

Many families support voucher programs, as it allows them to use tax dollars they pay for education but aren't able to use otherwise if they elect to attend a school other than the local private school. 

Voucher Programs in the US

According to the American Federation for Children, there are 39 private school choice programs in the US, 14 voucher programs, and 18 scholarship tax credit programs, in addition to a few other options. School voucher programs continue to be controversial, but some states, like Maine and Vermont, have honored these programs for decades. The states that offer voucher programs are:

  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Wisconsin
  • Washington, D.C.

In June 2016, articles appeared online about voucher programs. In North Carolina, a democratic attempt to cut private school vouchers failed, according to the Charlotte Observer. The article online dated June 3, 2016, reads: "The vouchers, known as 'Opportunity Scholarships,' would serve an additional 2,000 students per year starting in 2017 under the Senate budget. The budget also calls for the voucher program’s budget to increase by $10 million each year through 2027, when it would receive $145 million."

There were also reports in June 2016 that 54% of Wisconsin voters support using state dollars to fund private school vouchers. An article in the Green Bay Press-Gazette reports, "Among those polled, 54 percent support the statewide program, and 45 percent said they oppose vouchers. The survey also found 31 percent strongly support the program and 31 strongly oppose the program. Wisconsin adopted a statewide program in 2013."

Naturally, not all reports tout the benefits of a voucher program. In fact, Brookings Institution released an article stating that recent research on voucher programs in Indiana and Louisiana found that those students who took advantage of vouchers to attend private school, rather than their local public schools, received lower scores than their public school peers.