School vouchers—which enable students to attend non-public schools of their choice—have generated heated controversy since they were first introduced as a solution to failing public schools. School-choice opponents argue that vouchers lead to a dichotomy of “haves” and “have nots,” wherein some students are unfairly left behind in the failing public schools.
The newest revelation in school-choice research demonstrates that private school vouchers and other schoolchoice options—including charter schools, home schooling, and programs that allow students to attend any public school—improve student achievement for the students who participate in school-choice programs. It also shows that vouchers actually improve student achievement for those students who remain in the public schools. The research justifies the use of school vouchers as a legal sanction by state governments and the federal government to force public schools to raise student achievement or lose students and funding.
As more evidence is compiled that demonstrates that vouchers work as an effective sanction to spur the public schools to improve, more legislation will be written to use vouchers primarily as a sanction rather than having it remain a matter of individual choice for families. In 2001, at least 21 states have bills pending that pertain to vouchers.
Vouchers can be double-edged swords, however. While using vouchers as a sanction can motivate public schools to improve their performance, presenting them as the only legal option obviates the need for more direct opportunities for parents to exercise choice in schools. This paper will examine the tension between programs that use vouchers as a legal sanction versus the traditional concept of vouchers as a way to empower parents with more educational choices for their children.