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School voucher programs have been an important part of school reform for decades. The first voucher program in the United States was implemented in 1990 in Milwaukee. Today, there are 25 voucher programs in 15 states plus the District of Columbia. Utah has its own voucher program in the Carson Smith Scholarship.

The standard for public education is to have every child within a certain geographical area attend the same school. However, some schools fit the needs of some students better than others. Some families can send their children to private schools, or can move to an area where the schools are better. However, most families are unable to do that, so what a voucher does is allow a student to use some of the money the state allocates for her education on the tuition at a private school of her choice.

Critics of voucher programs have been many and litigious. Most of the voucher programs across the country have been subject to lawsuits, many of which centered on the contention that using public money to pay tuition at private, religious-sponsored schools violates the Establishment Clause in the Constitution. However, in 2002, in a case brought to them from Ohio’s voucher program, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled vouchers are constitutional.

Famed economist and voucher proponent Milton Friedman noted that free markets have provided all sorts of goods and services to all income classes, including the most advanced cell phones, appliances, good clothing, food and housing. Yet education continues to lag in some areas because there is no market competition driving innovation. Vouchers would provide the means for markets to emerge and provide quality education to the underprivileged. And the data suggest Friedman was right. Vouchers serve students from disadvantaged areas well and improve outcomes.

Vouchers have become popular because they’ve been shown to work. A dozen studies conducted over the last 20 years have found vouchers resulted in significant improvement in academic achievement. Researchers in these studies have found advancements in reading and math scores as well as significant increases in the graduation rate in multiple states with voucher programs.

Vouchers improve academic performance of students, but research also shows public school performance improves in areas where a voucher system is enacted. Rather than draining public schools of the best students and leaving behind only the most difficult students to educate, vouchers allow students to find a school that fits their own educational needs, reducing the causes of misbehavior and classroom disruptions. The educational marketplace that vouchers generate incentivizes all schools to tailor learning to individual students, thus raising instruction levels and educational performance of all schools, including public schools.

Education is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Just as markets can provide a multitude of goods to satisfy the diverse needs of an ever-changing populace, a marketplace made possible by a voucher program will improve the education we can provide for the diverse needs and learning styles of our students.

Dig Deeper:

Free to Choose: What’s Wrong With Our Schools Featuring Milton Friedman

EdChoice: What Are School Vouchers

Supreme Court ruling on vouchers

AEI – School Choice in America: What Does Research Tell Us?

Utah Citizen Network: Carson Smith Scholarship

The Library of Economics and Liberty: An Education in Market Failure

National Review: Denisha Merriweather’s Witness

PovertyCure Video: Private Schools in the Developing World

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