Vouchers for Elementary and Secondary Education

Isabel V. Sawhill and Shannon L. Smith


Public concern about the condition of the schools is high and support for public education is waning. Six out of ten parents say they would send their children to private schools if they had the money. Minority parents are especially concerned about the public schools with a large majority (68 percent) now in favor of more school choice. These sentiments have helped to fuel a major debate about the benefits of choice as well as a number of on-going experiments with school vouchers.

In this paper, we examine the issue of using vouchers to pay for elementary and secondary education in the United States. We begin with a review of the history of school choice in the U.S. and the arguments commonly made both for and against vouchers in that context. We describe some of the major choice proposals that have been advanced recently at the federal, state, and local levels. It will be clear from this exercise that vouchers, as applied to education, can take many forms. The devil is, as always, in the details—a point that both sides in the debate seem to have forgotten in their haste to either endorse or condemn the basic idea of choice as a tool for improving children’s education. By focusing on some of these details, we hope to show that vouchers are a flexible tool that can be bent to a variety of political or substantive purposes. Once such purposes are well-defined, vouchers can be designed around them. However, there is always the possibility that what is politically feasible will turn out to be less than fully effective in programmatic terms. For this reason, the chapter also examines what kinds of choice plans have actually been adopted (not simply proposed), and how they have worked in practice. It concludes with some more general comments on vouchers as a tool of public policy.