The History of Education Vouchers Affect On Students

Across the United States, legislators and education policy analysts increasingly discuss the merits of market-based reform measures such as charter schools, tax credits, and vouchers. Although vouchers in particular have been a lightning rod of controversy, they have been routinely used in Maine to send tens of thousands of students to schools of their parents' choice since 1873. Few analysts have paid much attention to this system of school choice, although it is the most extensive system in the United States.

Many towns in Maine have traditionally been considered too small to maintain a local public school. Under Maine's tuition program, any student who lives in a town without a public school is eligible for tuition reimbursement, which can be used for either an out-of-district public school or an approved private school. It should be noted, however, that some towns have written contracts with particular private or public schools, which can limit the choices available to students in those towns. For generations, some families have chosen from among independent academies and public schools, including many of the finest preparatory schools in New England. Those options used to include schools owned by religious orders, something precluded by the state since 1983.

Although tuition reimbursement is generally available only in communities without public schools, research suggests that the availability of tuition reimbursement has created greater competition among schools in regions where this form of school choice is available. The tuition program appears to have spurred improvements in schools and led to more specialization.

Other benefits of the program include lower costs. Data from the Maine Department of Education suggest that the tuition program costs approximately $6,000 per student, or 20 percent less than Maine's average per pupil expenditure for public education.

No studies have compared the academic test scores of students who receive vouchers with those of students assigned to traditional public schools, so it is not known whether vouchers have led to improved academic performance. However, the Maine Educational Assessment test shows that students in Maine's private schools have higher test scores than do students in public schools and that students attending private schools are more likely to graduate and obtain a higher education.

Given the better performance of students in Maine's private schools, it is likely that the opportunity to attend private school afforded by the voucher program has a positive effect on students' academic achievement.

Families weigh many factors when choosing schools, including goals and aspirations for their children, family and community custom, impressions made during formal presentations by a school's faculty and alumni and during school tours, cost, how well their children believe they will fit in or adapt to the new school, and unique opportunities and special programs

Since 1873 Maine has financed the education of thousands of kindergarten through 12th grade students in private schools. In fact, the state pays tuition for 35 percent of all students enrolled in Maine's private schools. The tuition program enables parents in towns without a traditional public school to choose a school from a list of approved private and public schools, enroll their child, and have the town pay that child's tuition up to an authorized amount. The town then receives full or partial reimbursement from the state. In the fall of 1999, 5,614 students from 55 different communities attended private schools through this program, while 30,412 attended nearby public schools. Schools of choice ranged from regular public schools to local academies such as Waynflete School in Portland, Maine, to boarding schools ranging from Choate and Phillips Exeter in New England to Vail Valley Academy in Colorado. Data from the Maine Department of Education suggest that the tuition program costs roughly $6,000 per student, or 20 percent less than Maine's average per pupil expenditure for public education.

Time and time again citizens have voted to keep this system that has been described as "the most valued attribute" of living in Maine. It's unfortunate that one of the best features of Maine's educational system is limited to students who live in the "right" towns. Maine's policymakers should seek to facilitate greater educational opportunities for all students, and policymakers nationwide should look to Maine's extensive experience with vouchers to inform their education reform efforts.

For more than 100 years, taxpayers in Maine have financed a public education system that allows thousands of students to attend private schools. In the fall of 1999, 5,614 students from 55 different communities attended private schools through this program. Those publicly funded students account for 35 percent of all students enrolled in Maine's private schools. Data from the Maine Department of Education suggest that the tuition program costs approximately $6,000 per student, or 20 percent less than Maine's average per pupil expenditure for public education. Thus, the tuition program gives parents a wider range of schools to choose from at a lower cost to the state than does the traditional public school system. Perhaps not surprisingly, citizens have voted to keep this system, which has been described as "the most valued attribute" of living in a tuition town. Unfortunately, Maine facilitates choice only for students who live in the "right" towns.

Maine's policymakers should expand educational opportunities for all students, and policymakers nationwide should look to Maine's extensive experience with vouchers to refine their education reform efforts. Vouchers are not radical. School choice is not a leap into the unknown. It's been quietly at work in Maine for 128 years.