Over the last decade, the expansion of school voucher programs—which let some students use taxpayer dollars to pay tuition at private schools of their choice—slowed considerably. Losses in statewide referenda and in state supreme courts made vouchers an even tougher political sell than they had been in the past. Public charter schools became a less controversial reform, especially as a new group of Democratic lawmakers proved far more willing to embrace charters than vouchers. True, existing school voucher programs expanded a bit during the last few years, while a few new programs popped up in states across the country, but overall progress was anemic.
Seemingly out of nowhere, however, 2011 has become the Year of the Voucher. Legislatures in 12 states—as well as the U.S. Congress, which saved D.C.’s program from annihilation at the last minute—have either adopted new voucher policies or expanded existing programs. The new Republican domination in state legislatures helped drive this shift. For instance, a substantial expansion of Milwaukee’s long-running voucher program and an expansive new policy in Indiana—awarding a voucher to any child in a family of four with an income of less than $60,000 a year—probably wouldn’t have happened without GOP legislative control in those states. But more broadly, the push toward vouchers is coming from a new breed of reform-minded politicians from both parties. Once a taboo subject, vouchers are now talked about openly on the campaign trail, and politicians are hiring reformers to run high-profile school systems. Voucher recipients and their families have become passionate advocates, as demonstrated by last year’s rally for choice expansion in Florida, attended by more than 5,000.
Further, as programs expand around the country, a more diverse set of voters can see that the dire predictions made by voucher foes don’t pan out. As a wide body of research now shows, vouchers and other forms of school choice don’t harm public school outcomes. Education researchers Brian Gill and Kevin Booker recently reviewed 14 studies on the effects of choice on public school systems; not one, they concluded, found that competition harmed the systems. In fact, Gill and Booker observed, there was “reason for cautious optimism” that school choice helped improve public school achievement.
Vouchers are likely to remain on the agenda because they’re one of the few policies that lead to educational improvement while saving taxpayer dollars. Cash-strapped legislatures are looking for ways to reduce spending, and schools will be an early target because they constitute so much of the states’ budgets. The cost of giving a student a voucher is often far less than the cost of educating that student in a public school. Further, as more students choose private educational alternatives, the need for public-sector employees diminishes—a welcome development for legislatures looking to reduce compensation and pension payments for state workers. Of course, that’s exactly what has motivated teachers’ unions to keep vouchers at bay for decades.
Far too many students still must attend subpar public schools. But the dramatic expansion of school choice in 2011 makes clear that we’re moving closer to the day when all parents can send their children to the schools that they think are best.