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Perspective | Debating school choice: A historical overview of private school vouchers

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While the debate around school choice initiatives has reached new heights over the last few years, private school voucher programs are not new to the United States, or even to North Carolina.

Private school vouchers — often called “opportunity scholarships” — operate as a school choice program allowing families to receive government funds to help cover all or part of the tuition associated with attending a private school. While this type of school choice initiative may seem fairly straightforward on the surface, private school vouchers have a long and controversial history in the United States.

The history of private school vouchers in the United States can be marked by three distinct time periods: (1) the roots of vouchers (from 1776 to 1949), (2) the rise of vouchers (from 1950 to 1989), and (3) and the growth and expansion of modern voucher programs (from 1990 to present day).

Some believe the debate over school choice and education is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. However, discussions around educational topics related to school choice options and vouchers can be found in the late-18th century writings of philosophers like Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, and John Stuart Mill. The debate over education looked quite different back then, but it was still prevalent in American academic discourse.

The very first school voucher programs were created in the states of Vermont (in 1869) and Maine (in 1873). These voucher initiatives were called “town-tuitioning” programs and were created with a simple goal in mind: to provide education for children living in small, rural towns that did not have public schools of their own. Both programs are still in operation today, making Vermont’s town-tuitioning program the nation’s first and oldest voucher policy.

The 1950s brought the rise of private school vouchers in a much more controversial context. The 1954 United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed public school segregation forever changed the course of educational history in the nation. Soon after, politicians in many southern states introduced voucher proposals in an effort to evade school integration. Some proposals suggested ending all funding to public schools and giving white families “tuition grants” to allow their children to attend a nearby private school.

It was within this context that Milton Friedman published “The Role of Government in Education” in 1955. Friedman was a proponent of the free market benefits of educational choice, believing that parents having educational options for their children would drive competition and increase educational quality overall. Friedman viewed vouchers through an economic paradigm, not a political or racial one, and it is widely believed that Friedman supported racial integration in schools. Friedman’s free market philosophy around education is still prevalent with many educational choice advocates and supporters of private school vouchers.

Nevertheless, there were still many who viewed education and educational choice strictly through a political and racial paradigm. Six states, including North Carolina, passed “tuition grant” laws during this time period in an attempt to evade integration. In 1958, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus closed all Little Rock high schools for one year to avoid integration, even attempting to privatize the schools (an effort deemed unconstitutional by federal judges). While damaging to all students, most displaced white students were able to access private schools during this “Lost Year,” but no such private school options emerged for Black students.

However, no voucher proposal during this time period was more detrimental to a community of Black families than the scheme that emerged in Prince Edward County, Virginia. In 1959, officials in the central-Virginia school district closed and defunded their public schools for five years. Vouchers were issued to white students to attend local private schools, but Black students in the county were not afforded the same opportunity and received no formal education from 1959 to 1963.

Sentiments around school choice proposals, including vouchers, began to shift in the 1980s and 1990s following the release of “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 federal report highlighting the perceived failures of the country’s educational system. There were calls for educational reform nationwide, particularly in urban areas that were not making steady educational improvement. Some African-American leaders, including Wisconsin State Rep. Polly Williams, began to view vouchers not as a mechanism for politicians to evade school integration, but as a possible avenue for academic achievement for poor and minority children.

Williams led the charge for the creation of a voucher plan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This voucher program — which became law in 1990 — opened private school options for children from low- and middle-income families in Milwaukee and became known as the first modern voucher program in the United States.

Three important factors converged during this time period to open the door for the Milwaukee voucher program. First, African-Americans gained significant political power during this time. Second, African-American leaders became increasingly frustrated with unsuccessful desegregation efforts and low academic achievement rates of Black students. Third, there were a substantial number of independent, secular private schools in Milwaukee that were able to benefit from the program as they were in desperate need of funding.

Following the passage of Milwaukee’s voucher law in 1990, Cleveland, Ohio, also passed an experimental voucher plan in 1995. Critics of the Cleveland Scholarship Program believed it violated the Establishment Clause and a group of taxpayers filed suit in an attempt to stop the program. The case — Zelman v. Simmons-Harris — reached the United States Supreme Court, but in 2002 the Court held by a 5-to-4 vote that Cleveland’s voucher program was constitutional. This Supreme Court decision was a major victory for voucher proponents, opening the door for the expansion of additional voucher laws across the country.

Florida became the first state to pass a statewide voucher program in 1999, while over 20 different programs came to fruition across the country after 2000. The voucher programs created during this time period often targeted a specific group of at-risk students. For example, voucher programs were created for students with special needs in Ohio, Utah, Georgia, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Additionally, voucher laws were passed aiming to provide private school options for students from low-income households in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio.

North Carolina passed two separate voucher laws — known as the “Opportunity Scholarships Program” — in 2013, one for students with disabilities and one for students from low-income families.

Presently, there are approximately 75 different voucher or “voucher-like” programs across the United States. Proponents of these various programs — whether they are private school vouchers, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), or tax credit scholarships — believe they offer educational options for families outside of traditional public schools. Up until just recently, voucher programs across the country were almost always “means-tested,” meaning they aimed to assist a specific group of at-risk students. For example, most voucher programs since 1990 were intended for and only open to students from low-income families or students with special needs.

However, since September 2022, eight states have passed universal (or near universal) private school voucher programs or ESAs, opening up these programs to all students, even those currently attending a private school. North Carolina became one such state with the passage of a voucher expansion law in the fall of 2023.

Private school vouchers and other school choice initiatives have been debated in North Carolina and nationwide for decades. However, over the last 20 years, eight common themes around the private school voucher debate have emerged amongst academic and political circles.

The first such theme is the effect of vouchers on student achievement. So far, the research around this topic is largely inconclusive. Some studies have shown vouchers to have a positive impact on academic achievement, while others have shown no significant impact or even a negative impact. In most cases, the differences in curriculum and testing requirements across the public and private sectors makes it very difficult to compare different schools and assess the impact on academic achievement, an issue that has proven particularly true in North Carolina.

Second, many voucher proponents believe education should be subject to free-market competition, similar to the philosophy held by Friedman in the 1950s. Voucher proponents often argue that allowing schools to compete for funding and for students will subject schools to market forces that will drive innovation and achievement. Critics, however, believe this philosophy is damaging to schools — particularly those that are under-resourced — and that education is a public good that should not be treated like a private, consumable product.

Tied closely to this theme is the third concept, that of individual parent school choice. Vouchers are viewed as part of a larger “school choice” framework, and proponents believe parents should have the sole authority to choose their child’s education. Whilhe the concept of “school choice” does not have to be inherently controversial or problematic, there are some hidden and often unanticipated costs associated with private schools that can hinder a parent’s ability to make an educational choice for their child. For example, private schools are not required to — and often do not — provide transportation to and from school, nor do they provide free or reduced-priced meals for students from low-income families. Transportation and student meals are provided by public schools, but the lack of these options within most private schools can create a barrier for many low-income families, thereby greatly limiting their “school choice” options.

The fourth theme related to voucher programs is racial segregation, though this is a concept within the voucher debate that is not as prevalent as it was when voucher laws were passed following the Brown v. Board ruling. While it is clear that early voucher programs were often designed as a means to evade federal desegregation orders, more recent research suggests that voucher programs can lead to improved racial integration in certain instances.

The fifth argument around vouchers centers on the effect of such programs on public school funding. Supporters will often argue that voucher plans provide a more efficient use of tax-payer dollars. However, critics point to the lack of special education services offered in many private schools, arguing that voucher programs siphon money away from public schools to private schools with students who are often considered less expensive to educate.

The sixth theme centers on the effect of voucher programs on at-risk student populations. From 1990 to 2022, essentially all voucher programs created in the United States were “means-tested,” targeting specific groups of at-risk students. Voucher programs have most commonly aimed to assist students from low-income families and/or students with disabilities, as was the case with both Opportunity Scholarship programs signed into law in North Carolina in 2013. However, within the last two years, several states (including North Carolina in 2023) have expanded their voucher programs to allow all students–regardless of socioeconomic status or any other at-risk factor–to receive state funding to attend a private school. This will likely mark a significant shift in the manner in which the purpose and intent of these programs will be viewed moving forward.

The seventh theme considers the separation of church and state and whether private school voucher programs violate the Establishment Clause. While voucher critics believe they do, the 2002 ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris determined that voucher laws were constitutional, at least at the federal level. The Supreme Court’s majority opinion noted that voucher funding was not being given directly to the school, but instead was given to the parent to be used at the school of their choice, regardless whether or not the school had a religious affiliation. While some voucher programs have faced legal challenges for potentially violating clauses in state constitutions, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in favor of vouchers paved the way for numerous states to pass new voucher laws after 2002.

The final theme prevalent in the voucher debate has arguably garnered the most attention over the last 10 years, especially in North Carolina: oversight and accountability. Some states with voucher laws (Indiana, for example) use school evaluation and accountability models similar to those used by traditional public schools, including an A-F grading scale for schools. Other states (including Louisiana and Ohio) mandate that students receiving private school vouchers take the same standardized tests as their public school counterparts. Comparatively, recent studies have noted that North Carolina’s methods of accountability and oversight for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program are some of the weakest in the nation, leaving parents with little to no data by which to utilize to determine if attending a particular private school may be academically beneficial for their children.

This begs the question — what role — if any — should accountability and oversight play in a private school voucher program? Should students receiving state funds to attend a private school have to take the same high-stakes tests that public school students are mandated to take? Are these methods necessary to give parents the information they need to make an informed choice? If not, then why are public school students asked to take these tests every year beginning as early as third grade?

Voucher proponents often argue that the parent’s right to choose a school for their child serves as the only necessary “oversight,” and that parents will hold schools accountable “with their feet” as they choose the best school for their child. If this form of accountability is appropriate for private schools, can and should it be appropriate for public schools as well, thereby greatly reducing or eliminating high-stakes standardized testing?

Nevertheless, with voucher programs expanding and millions more tax dollars going to private schools, will this form of “accountability” be enough, or will government officials and politicians insist that private schools face increased oversight? And if that increased oversight occurs — in the form of standardized tests, mandated curriculum, etc. — will that be a bridge too far for private school leaders who wish to maintain their autonomy, even if it means turning down state funding in the form of vouchers?

In the midst of North Carolina’s voucher expansion, many public school leaders simply want a system of accountability that presents a level playing field between all types of schools receiving state funding. As the discourse over private school vouchers continues, the issue of accountability and oversight will likely be one of the most significant and contentious topics of the ongoing debate.

For citations, see the full dissertation here.

Boomer Kennedy

Boomer Kennedy is the director of secondary schools and CTE in the Yadkin County Schools.