Failed Experiment

It’s Time To Shut Down School Voucher Schemes

Advocates of government subsidies for religious and other private schools have been aggressively pushing for vouchers on and off since the 1950s.

Competition between public and private schools (including religious schools), they claimed, would spur reform and push academic achievement northward. In the dog-eat-dog marketplace of education’s brave new world, new schools would spring up and insist on excellence 

It took some time, but eventually a few states did approve public funding for voucher plans. Milwaukee’s plan has been in place since the early 1990s. Cleveland and Washington, D.C., have plans as well.

So we can now test the claims of voucher advocates. How have they fared?


Objective studies of the Milwaukee and Cleveland plans have shown voucher students doing no better academically than their public school counterparts. D.C.’s program, foisted on the city by the Bush administration and conservatives in Congress, is far short of meeting its targeted goals.

In Milwaukee and Cleveland, new schools did indeed spring up. Unfortunately, many of them are fly-by-night academies of dubious educational quality that seek to cash in on the voucher largesse. Such scams are an inevitable consequence of a lightly regulated market.

The public has also shown no interest in vouchers. Every time the concept has appeared on a state ballot, voters have soundly rejected vouchers. From liberal California to conservative Utah, the American people have said they don’t want a patchwork system of private and religious schools funded with tax dollars that remain unaccountable to the taxpayer. They want a well-funded, accountable and effective public school system.

Despite this track record of failure, ideologues continue to push private school subsidies. Recently elected governors in New Jersey and Virginia are gearing up to promote vouchers, and legislators in several states have introduced “neo-voucher” bills – systems whereby taxpayers receive a full or partial tax credit for money they donate to a private entity that distributes vouchers.

At this point, it should become obvious that the battle over this issue has devolved into a fight over ideology; it’s not about helping children.

Some people just don’t like public institutions. They want to privatize everything, including education. Others are dismayed that some religious schools are struggling and want a government bailout.

There’s no denying that some public schools are troubled. They often exist in areas of dire poverty and other forms of social dysfunction. Allowing a small number of students to leave these schools and go to private institutions where they fare no better academically is not an answer. It turns a blind eye toward our responsibilities.

Voucher advocates had an opportunity to make their case. They have failed, and it’s time to stop pretending otherwise.