School Vouchers Gain Ground

April 16, 2012

The Louisiana state legislature has approved a new school vouchers system that, when signed by Governor Bobby Jindal, will be one of the largest in the country.  The move caps 18 months of extensive expansion of voucher programs nationwide and broadens the national argument about the future of public education, says the Wall Street Journal.

With growing systems in Florida, Virginia and Indiana joining older programs such as those in Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the use of vouchers has increased rapidly since 2010.

  • Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have either voucher systems or "scholarship" programs that provide tax benefits to individuals and businesses for contributions that help pay for students to attend private school.
  • The vast majority of these programs are targeted at specific groups of at-risk students, such as low-income or those with special needs.
  • The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an organization that advocates vouchers, estimates that about 220,000 students are currently enrolled in the programs nationwide.

The Louisiana program would add hundreds of thousands of students to the voucher camp, and would also implement several innovative policy provisions that would help put the program at the cutting edge of education.

  • John White, Louisiana's superintendent of education, said the state's current voucher program has saved money because the state spends about $8,500 a pupil to educate public-school students in New Orleans, but is spending only about $4,500 on average for voucher students.
  • The new system would expand voucher availability to an estimated 380,000 poor and middle-class students in low-performing schools.
  • Distinctly, the new vouchers would also be available for use by students to pay for state-approved apprenticeships at local businesses.
  • They would also be available to fund college courses and private online classes.

Opponents argue that the vouchers threaten to divert money away from cash-strapped schools, thereby threatening the educational outcomes of those who opt to stay in traditional schools.  They also point to some studies that suggest that voucher students perform worse in key areas.  However, a study by Patrick Wolf, a professor at the University of Arkansas, that analyzed 10 voucher studies in seven cities found no evidence of harm to voucher students or those who opt to stay in public schools.

Source: Stephanie Banchero, "School Vouchers Gain Ground," Wall Street Journal, April 11, 2012.

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