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Guest Column: Parents, studies agree that school vouchers work

POSTED: February 13, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Georgia's General Assembly has begun debating a bill that would make public education funding portable. Rather than having no choice but to accept whatever school the state assigns them, parents could use a tuition voucher to have their child educated at the school of their choice, including private schools.

Georgia adopted this same policy for special education students two years ago. Disabled students in Georgia are now able to use a voucher to attend a public or private school of their choice. The bill now under consideration would simply allow other students the same freedom.

This policy has a long track record of success. Parents who have tried it overwhelmingly say that it works, and the research consistently backs them up.

For example, a team of Harvard researchers surveyed parents who applied for vouchers in privately funded voucher programs in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio. On every measurement, parents who won a random lottery and received slots in the voucher programs were much more satisfied with their schools than those who applied but lost the lottery and did not receive vouchers.

Among the school voucher parents, 54 percent were "very satisfied" with their private school's academic program, compared to only 15 percent of parents who applied for vouchers but didn't get them and had to return to public schools. The gap was about the same or wider for satisfaction with what was being taught (56 percent vs. 15 percent), teacher skills (58 percent vs. 18 percent), school discipline (53 percent vs. 15 percent), safety (54 percent vs. 18 percent) and a dozen other measurements.

Milwaukee has had publicly funded school vouchers for almost 20 years. Surveys there have consistently found that parents who use vouchers are much more satisfied with their children's schools. The program's official evaluator noted that for participating parents, the program brought about "a dramatic reversal — high levels of dissatisfaction with prior public schools, but considerable satisfaction with private schools."

A survey of parents who applied for vouchers under Cleveland's 12-year-old voucher program found that 63 percent of those who used the vouchers to attend private schools were "very satisfied" with their schools. Among those who applied for vouchers but did not use them and remained in public schools, only 29 percent were "very satisfied."

A survey of parents using special-education vouchers in Florida, in a program very similar to Georgia's year-old program, found especially striking results. While 93 percent of participants were satisfied with their private schools, only 33 percent had been satisfied with their previous public schools. Even parents who were no longer in the program said they had been more satisfied with their children's schools when they were in the program. And 90 percent of those who were no longer in the program said that it should continue for others.

Results for school voucher programs in other places are the same. Vouchers deliver the better education that parents want.

And research shows that the parents know what they're talking about. Studies using gold-standard empirical methods consistently find that vouchers improve education for the students who use them.

The research also consistently finds that public schools get better when they're exposed to competition from vouchers.

That's why school choice is such a triumphant political success; there are now 24 programs in 14 states plus Washington, D.C. Over 160,000 students nationwide attend private schools using public funds through school choice programs.

Georgia has already embraced the principle of educational freedom by extending school vouchers to special-education students last year. The question now is, does Georgia want only some of its parents to have the opportunity to seek out the best education for their children, or all of them?

Greg Forster is a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.



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