Policy Study

School Voucher Programs in the United States

Implications and Applications for California

Executive Summary

Few reforms promise to do more to fundamentally alter the structure of public education in America than school choice. Yet proponents and opponents alike are at a loss to describe exactly how school choice would in fact operate. Privately funded voucher programs, operating on a small scale in twelve U.S. cities, offer working demonstrations of school choice.

Together, these programs provide tuition vouchers to over 5,000 low-income children enabling them to attend their school of choice, including religious schools. Typically, the programs grant vouchers valued at half the amount of tuition at the chosen school; vouchers are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis to children eligible for the federal free-lunch program.

Available parent surveys show that parents placed greatest importance on “educational quality” when selecting a school. This finding is in sharp contrast to the conclusions of the 1992 Carnegie Report on school choice which stated that parents selected schools for nonacademic reasons.

Parents who opted to participate in choice programs tended to have higher educational expectations for their children, were more educated, and had fewer children than comparable nonchoosing families. However, marital status and income levels of participating families were often similar between low-income families who used vouchers compared to those whose children remained in the public schools.

In Milwaukee, the privately funded Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE) program operates alongside the state-supported Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Although the MPCP pays full tuition, and PAVE only half, greater numbers of low-income parents have applied to the PAVE program than the MPCP. Regulations on the MPCP appear to have dampened demand for it; parents are restricted to choosing among 13 nonreligious private schools. In the PAVE program, children attend any one of 86 schools, including religious schools.

Unlike countless attempts to bring about school choice through legislative means, private-voucher programs are a proven service-delivery model that works. The work of private initiative, these voucher programs face few of the regulatory and political hurdles encountered by other school-choice proposals. Moreover, because the vouchers are funded privately, the private schools themselves avoid the risk of government interference that often accompanies government funding.

Following the defeat of a school-choice initiative in 1993 which would have provided state-support for tuition vouchers, Californians may wish to pursue a private-sector alternative. Where are the areas of greatest need? How would a decline in public-school enrollment affect California school finance? What steps should organizers of a private-voucher program take? The report addresses each of these questions, and recommends that state legislatures grant tax credits to organizations providing tuition vouchers, and reduce business regulations affecting private schools.

The following quotes are excerpts taken from letters written by parents whose children attend private schools with the assistance of a privately provided tuition voucher. Privately funded school-choice programs operate in twelve U.S. cities giving over 5,000 children choice in education.

If you were a business leader, and you were interested in sponsoring children for the CHOICE program, I would tell you that it would be to your advantage, because the children are the future. And, if they don’t get the training that the private schools are offering, then there’s not going to be any other children to take over.

-Debbie McClung, mother of Ashlee, Indianapolis.

This has been the most significant gift we could have ever received in our lifetime. It is most painful not to be able to provide my children with anything else as we rely so much on hand-me-downs and the support of money and food from family and friends. But you have provided them with a gift no one else can and a gift that will truly make their future. Your program is their lifeline.

-Joy Smith, mother of Allison (age 9), Jason (age 12) and Billy (age 14), Chamblee, Ga.

The program is a blessing for parents like myself who are single with more than one child…It is truly rare that quality and real care is offered to low-income families.

-Aminah Omari, mother of Ase (age 9), Ainkasha (age 7), and Akinyele (age 6), Atlanta, Ga.

We are ecstatic about the change in our son, his attitude toward school, the new friends he’s made and the quality of his curriculum.

-Willie Thompson, mother of Eric (age 9) Decatur, Ga.

My granddaughter, Stephanie, is considered dyslexic and although she attended pre-kinder, kindergarten, and three years of public school, there was very little done to help her. Her school-work this year resembled work done by a first grader. She could not read or retain anything. A friend told us about The Learning Nook, a private school that works with children having learning problems. We enrolled her immediately and within three or four days, her attitude was completely changed. She looked forward to going to school. Her writing is neat and clear, she now enjoys doing her homework, and her alphabet letters are not backwards. I am very grateful to CEO for the two year tuition scholarship granted to Stephanie.

-Estela Fincke, grandmother of Stephanie (age 9) San Antonio, Tex.

I have three sons, they have attended three middle schools within a two month period. They were not safe at any of them. At Paige Middle School, the principal had to bring my sons home in the middle of the day, not because they were misbehaving, but because the gang members were harassing them in the classroom, outside, in the halls, even on the way home; they were not safe. Because of these problems that caused them to have low self-esteem, stress, and not wanting to go to school, their grades were beginning to look real bad. I spent a lot of time at school instead of working at my job.

But thank God for the CEO Foundation that came to my rescue… They would still be living in fear, if it wasn’t for the choice that CEO program has given my family… We would like to say thank you very much to CEO Foundation for giving us a chance and a choice.

-Etta Wallace, mother of Bobby, Tony, and Terry, San Antonio, Tex.