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Askwith Essentials: School Vouchers, Friend or Foe?

A debate on how educators should grapple with the school voucher, one of the most pressing questions in education policy

While publicly supported private school choice has powerful new supporters in the White House in Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, it is not a new idea. Since gaining prominence through the support of economist Milton Friedman decades ago, school vouchers, which subsidize student tuition at private and parochial schools with public dollars, are one of the most controversial ideas in education policy. On Monday, May 1, Askwith Forums will convene a debate on how educators should grapple with the school voucher, one of the most pressing questions in education policy today.

The Basics

  • In 2016, 11 states and the District of Columbia operated private school choice programs, serving about 147,000 students
  • Most private school choice programs determine student eligibility based on low income or disability status
  • For private school choice programs that aren’t targeted towards students with disabilities, students of color are the majority of participants
  • In traditional voucher programs, funding “follows” students to whichever eligible school they choose to attend
  • Education Savings Accounts, a recent development in voucher policy, families receive money directly to spend on private tuition, online or community college classes, and other educational expenses

Do Vouchers Work?

  • A 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research paper claims that while vouchers might not directly improve a user’s achievement, competition from vouchers may induce surrounding public schools to improve
  • Impact studies of Milwaukee and Louisiana’s voucher programs found no change and net negative change, respectively, in achievement scores of students who used vouchers
  • However, a study of vouchers in Washington, D.C. by event panelist Patrick Wolf found that voucher students were more likely to graduate from high school


  • Cynthia G. Brown, senior fellow, Center for American Progress
  • Howard Fuller, distinguished professor of education and director, Institute for the Transformation of Learning, Marquette University
  • Helen F. "Sunny" Ladd, Susan B. King Professor of Public Policy Studies and professor of economics, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University
  • Patrick Wolf, professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice, University of Arkansas


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