School vouchers have not been proposed in a vacuum. Those who advocate vouchers, and those who oppose them, do so within a larger context of educational reform. The purpose of this policy research study is to examine that environment, in particular the varying ways in which vouchers are promoted as educational reform, as political strategy, as economic solution, and as public policy. Persistent controversy surrounding vouchers in the U.S. and the difficulty for policy researchers to measure the impact stem, in part, from these multiple roles that vouchers play in the minds of adherents and adversaries. This paper uses research data, court rulings, media reports, and proposed legislation to consider the many ways in which vouchers appear in this debate, demonstrating how the meaning of vouchers has evolved into this hydra of public policy. Further, the paper will identify limitations for the usefulness of vouchers in the future of U.S. public education.
Early Calls for Vouchers as Economic Solution (1950's)
Many sources provide a history of vouchers. (1) Most of them usually begin with the proposal by Milton Friedman (2) who as an economist definitely viewed vouchers as an economic solution. In those early days, Friedman called for a "modest amount, free vouchers for all." (3) He clearly defined vouchers, and most people accepted his definition of a voucher, as a partial or full tuition credit to offset the costs of private school tuition. When Friedman first proposed vouchers as an economic policy tool, there were no charter schools, as there are today, and no broader "school choice" debate. There were either public schools or private schools. The divisive political issues of the 1960s, the deterioration of the urban core, and other social problems had not become prevalent when Friedman suggested his first voucher proposal. Since that time, public and private schools have become less of an either/or proposition and more of a blurred spectrum, from fully public and inclusive schools, to magnet schools, charter schools, all the way to the other extreme of fully private and exclusive schools for elites. The first point to be made then is that when the economist Milton Friedman first suggested vouchers as an economic solution, he did so in a completely different educational, economic, political, and legal context than exists today.
Vouchers as Educational Reform (1960-1980)
In the 1960s, the war on poverty brought vouchers back on center stage in the policy arena. They emerged this time as an educational reform, though only one among many, to serve the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. When James Coleman (4) identified the achievement gap between black and white students, vouchers appeared as one potential policy tool. The effective schools research that followed Coleman's work in the 1970s put forward the notion that private schools did a better job of educating students, especially students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Later, in fact, other researchers challenged the conclusions of Coleman's research that identified and defined the gap. These critics observed serious methodological problems in the Coleman study. Educational research has become far more sophisticated since then, and clearly it is very difficult to compare school effects because of the vast number of extraneous and confounding variables that are inevitably involved. More recent research has called into question the basic assumption that private school students outperform public school students when socioeconomic background is controlled.
By the 1980s, the ingredient of global economic competition was added to the educational reform debate. The Nation at Risk report of 1983 (5) blamed educational failures for economic troubles and predicted widespread problems if America did not fix its schools immediately. Thus began the constant-acceleration problem, keeping up with the Joneses, in the international world. …