What is a private school voucher?

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Jon Golbe, Writes for Noodle

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Some U.S. states have school voucher programs that give families access to money they can put toward private school tuition or, in some states, other education-related expenses.

Which expenses are eligible (and who qualifies) varies from state to state. Some vouchers only go to families living below a certain income level; some only go to students with disabilities. In certain cases, any student can apply, but a lottery determines which students receive voucher money. Some states restrict voucher programs to districts in which the public schools are “failing,” and sometimes the voucher can only be used for nonsectarian education. (That is, with no religious affiliation or emphasis.) The values of the vouchers vary but are generally around a few thousand dollars, which may or may not cover the full cost of tuition at a given school.

Vouchers are now generally referred to as “scholarship programs” because the term "voucher" became controversial in the 1990’s. The controversy stems from the source of the money for the programs — the public school system. Under the rules of the scholarship program, the expense of educating students in the public schools is calculated to a certain dollar amount per student. For every student who withdraws from the public school, that amount is withdrawn from the public school’s budget. This puts pressure on the public school, as it will no longer be able to operate if too many students withdraw. For advocates of school choice, this is a good thing. “Competition would force the government schools to shape up or close down,” said Rose Friedman, co-founder with her husband, conservative economist Milton Friedman, of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. People on the more liberal/progressive end of the political spectrum tend to oppose voucher programs because they take revenue from public school systems and transfer it to private schools that are less accountable to public standards. (It also means in some instances that public money is being used for religious education.)

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