Do School Vouchers Work?

Paul Peterson
Year of publication: 
The World & I

The issue of education vouchers has become a new Gettysburg for America in the closing years of the twentieth century--and promises to continue to be a blood-soaked civil war battlefield in the new millennium.

School vouchers--payments made to parents of school-age children that are earmarked to pay tuition at a private or parochial school of the parents' choice--are decried by teachers unions as a stake through the heart of public education. Many civil libertarians chime in, saying that, if vouchers are distributed by a government agency to a faith-based school, they make a mockery of the Bill of Rights by flouting the establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment.

Voucher proponents, on the other hand, insist that the new system would boost school quality, and thus scholastic achievement, by encouraging competition between public and private schools. They also say that many low-income parents, if given the chance, would send their children to private and parochial schools, and that the exodus would achieve a breakup of the educational "ghetto" that afflicts inner cities with a vicious cycle of scholastic underachievement, poor job prospects, low self-esteem, drug taking, and crime.

The element in the school choice debate that provokes perhaps the most passion is an implicit question: Do children learn more in private or public schools?

The controversy has raged for nearly two decades. Recently, however, answers have become more definitive. But it is worth placing these recent results in historical perspective.