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School Vouchers 101: What They Are, How They Work — And Do They Work?

Lindsay Johnson

President-elect Donald Trump said on the campaign trail that school choice is "the new civil rights issue of our time." But to many Americans, talk of school choice isn't liberating; it's just plain confusing.

Exhibit A: Vouchers.

Politicians love to use this buzzword in perpetual second reference, assuming vouchers are like Superman: Everyone knows where they came from and what they can do. They're wrong. And, as Trump has tapped an outspoken champion of vouchers, Betsy DeVos, to be his next education secretary, it's time for a quick origin story.

What are they?

Think of traditional vouchers as coupons, backed by state dollars, that parents can use to send their kids to the school of their choice, even private, religiously affiliated schools. The money is all or some of what the state would have otherwise spent to educate the child in a public school.

Often called scholarships, vouchers are most often reserved for low-income students, children with disabilities or for families zoned to a failing public school.

Where are they?

Fourteen states offer traditional student vouchers, according to EdChoice, a school choice advocacy group based in Indianapolis: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont and Wisconsin, plus Washington, D.C.

The idea has been making headlines since the early 1990s, when several hundred students first took part in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

What about separation of church and state?

Ah, the old First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of vouchers in 2002, but many state constitutions still have what are called Blaine Amendments, which prohibit spending public dollars on religious schools. That's one reason the majority of states still don't offer traditional vouchers.

What does the research say?

"Most studies find modestly positive or neutral impact on student scores, and that's generally limited to African-American students in large urban centers," says Micah Ann Wixom, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States.

This 2007 Rand review of research found, as Wixom says, slight gains among students of color, but that the research "has a number of weaknesses that preclude comprehensive and definitive answers."

"Do voucher students perform better than they would have in their neighborhood school?" asks Josh Cunningham, a senior education policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "At the most I can say, 'Maybe, a little bit.' But there's not a lot of evidence that they'll have any substantial academic gains."

Or, as the Center on Education Policy underscored in its 2011 survey of voucher research: "Achievement gains for voucher students are similar to those of their public school peers."

It's also possible, Cunningham and Wixom note, that vouchers can work in the opposite direction. Both point to recent research on programs in Louisiana and Ohio that found vouchers may have a negative impact on student achievement.

What is Trump's plan?

In a nutshell: Trump has pitched repurposing $20 billion in federal education dollars, distributing them to states as block grants. States can then pass the money on, as vouchers, to the nation's 11 million students who live in poverty.

Trump has said he wants parents to be able to use these vouchers at the school of their choice, even if that school is private and/or religiously affiliated.

What are the obstacles to Trump's plan?

We already mentioned the fact that many state constitutions still have Blaine Amendments. That's Obstacle No. 1. It's not prohibitive, but a problem.

No. 2: It's possible that many of those repurposed federal dollars would come from Title I, a long-standing federal program meant to send additional money to school districts that serve at-risk students. The problem there is, just a year ago Congress finally rewrote the big education law that sets the ground rules for Title I. It's hard to imagine the White House tapping this money without Congress cracking open the law and reworking the rules. And it's not clear there's enough appetite in Congress to do that.

No. 3: In Trump's speech unveiling his ambitious choice plan, the then-candidate said this about its price tag:

"If the states collectively contribute another $110 billion of their own education budgets toward school choice, on top of the $20 billion in federal dollars, that could provide $12,000 in school choice funds to every K-12 student who today lives in poverty."

Translation: Even if the Trump administration can scrape together $20 billion to pay for its voucher plan, that wouldn't begin to cover the full cost. Trump's plan would require states to kick in far more of their own money. And that will be tough, considering that as of 2014 35 states were still spending less overallper student than they were in 2008. The Great Recession put many state education budgets in a vise grip that has yet to loosen.

No. 4: Finally, and perhaps most important of all: Vouchers are not universally popular, even among conservative voters. They may make a certain amount of sense in a large school district or a city where there are enough students — and established private schools — to support multiple choices. But schools in many small towns are closing or consolidating. They don't have enough students to support choice. For lots of rural parents, vouchers are more abstraction than alternative.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
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