by Ullik Rouk

Do Voucher Students Show Higher Achievement?

Most challenges to vouchers focus on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which mandates separation of church and state, largely because of the large number of parochial schools that would receive public funding. Florida’s voucher program expands the debate by directly addressing the appropriateness of expending public funds on any private schools, religious or secular. The only thing people on both sides of the dispute agree upon is that sooner or later the legal uncertainties of voucher programs will put the question before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Most challenges to vouchers focus on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which mandates separation of church and state, largely because of the large number of parochial schools that would receive public funding.

Researchers David Berliner of the University of Arizona and Bruce Biddle of the University of Missouri (1995) are quick to point out the dangers of allowing First Amendment issues to divert attention from other, equally important questions about voucher programs–namely, do voucher students receive a better education? And do voucher programs truly offer all students equal educational opportunity? In other words, what do we know about the achievement of students in voucher programs, student eligibility for such programs, and the accountability of private schools accepting publicly funded vouchers?

Do Voucher Students Show Higher Achievement?

The voucher movement assumes that private school students achieve at higher levels than public school students do. Is that really so?

In general, students who attend private schools achieve at a slightly higher level than do public school students, but not sufficiently high that the results are statistically significant. Murray (1999) reports that NAEP scores show that higher socioeconomic status students do marginally better in public schools, while poor students do slightly better in private schools.

Research, however, has consistently shown that these achievement differences have less to do with whether a school is public or private than with other variables. Parents’ education level and income, two characteristics widely regarded in research as influencing student achievement, tend to be higher in private schools. Thus students in private schools are likely to have an achievement edge. Parents who choose private schools may also be more educationally motivated and more likely to pass that motivation on to their children (Alexander and Pallas, 1985; Levin, 1990).

A positive relationship between private schools’ apparent higher achievement and these factors finds support in another study. Rothstein, Carnoy, and Benveniste (1999) reported that among the most significant factors contributing to differences in student outcomes were the communities the schools serve and parents’ social, cultural, and economic backgrounds. The researchers concluded that the culture, practices, and outcomes at an inner-city private school are more likely to be similar to those of an inner-city public school than to a private school in an affluent suburban community.

Private Schools in the United States

Number of private elementary and secondary schools in the Untied States: 27,402

  • 48 percent Catholic schools
  • 30 percent other religious schools
  • 22 percent nonsectarian.

    Number of students: approximately 5 million or 10 percent of the total number of elementary and secondary students


  • 78 percent white, non-Hispanic
  •  9 percent black, non-Hispanic
  •  8 percent Hispanic
  •  5 percent Pacific Islander
  •  0.5 percent American Indian/Alaskan Native


  • 11 percent offer English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)
  •  4 percent offer bilingual education
  •  1 percent offer special education
  •  1 percent offer gifted programs


  • 50 percent of all private school students attended schools in urban areas
  • 40 percent attended schools in an urban fringe or a large town
  • 12 percent attended rural schools

Sources: Private School Universe Survey, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, fall 1997; Private Schools in the United States: A Statistical Profile, 1993–94, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1997.

Smaller Numbers Limit Voucher Findings
Research on how public voucher programs affect student achievement is limited because of the small number of voucher programs that exists. Analyses from the Milwaukee voucher experiment have generally shown few achievement benefits. Test data from the program’s first five years revealed that the performance of students who received vouchers was about equal to that of students who remained in Milwaukee Public Schools (Witte, Thorn, Pritchard, and Claibourne, 1995). This study was criticized for having serious methodological flaws, including a large rate of student attrition during the period of the study and failure to account for students’ family background and prior achievement (Peterson 1997). A second analysis of the same data, therefore, was conducted and found a substantial positive impact on the mathematics and reading achievement of Milwaukee students who remained in the program for three and four years (Greene, Peterson, and Du, 1996). A third analysis (Rouse, 1997) found that voucher students significantly outperformed non-voucher students in mathematics but not in reading.

That third study also examined school and class size, two key variables related to student achievement. It found that public school students who were educated in Milwaukee’s small class program outperformed all other students, including other public school students in regular-class settings and voucher students.

An evaluation of the Cleveland voucher program by researchers at Indiana University reported no significant difference in achievement between voucher students and comparable students in Cleveland public schools (Metcalf, 1998). It did find, however, that students attending private schools that were established after the voucher program was begun performed worse in all subject areas than students in the Cleveland Public Schools and other private schools.

A recent study of voucher students, grades 2–8, in Dayton, Ohio; New York City; and Washington, D.C., found a mixed range of differences in student achievement from moderately significant to no significant differences depending on age and ethnicity of the children (Howell, Wolf, Peterson, and Campbell, 2000). Some of the most positive results were from African-American voucher students in all three cities whose overall test-score performance on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) was higher than their counterparts in public schools. After two years the difference was statistically significant. Because the study examines test scores of students who applied to privately funded voucher programs in the three cities, a full discussion falls outside the purpose of this edition of Insights.

Parents Express Greater Satisfaction
Overall, voucher programs show their strengths in the positive attitudes that parents of voucher students report regarding school safety, climate, instructional quality, and school administration. Parents of voucher students in both cities expressed considerably more satisfaction in all of these areas than they did in their evaluations of their children’s previous schools. Also, Milwaukee parents’ involvement in school activities was greater in private schools that accepted vouchers than in most other Milwaukee public schools (Witte, et al. 1994).

Evidence of the effects of vouchers on the achievement of students who remained in public schools appears to have been inconclusive at best. The New York Times reported that two Pensacola public schools are fighting student flight by hiring more teachers, reducing class size, stretching the school year by 30 days, and adding afternoon tutoring (Wilgoren, March 14, 2000). They have also cut back on science and social studies, two subjects not on the state test in favor of more drill in reading, writing, math, and test-taking techniques. Whether these changes can be directly attributed to vouchers rather than the state’s accountability procedures is difficult to determine.

Next Page: Vouchers and Tax Credits around the Region

Published in Insights on Educational Policy, Practice, and Research Number 12, September 2000, Vouchers: Yea or Nay