Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

Special Report / RAND Report on Charter Schools and Vouchers

Voucher programs, one of the more hotly debated proposals forexpanding school choice, provide public funds for parents to useat public or private schools. Charter schools, a less controversialapproach, operate under contract to a school district or othergovernment entity using public funds, but without adhering tomany of the restraints of school district governance. Both ofthese reform options have gained national political support andmedia attention.
School choice advocates hope that charter schools and voucherplans will give parents more control over their children'sschooling, encourage innovation, raise student achievement, andcreate competition that will force conventional public schools toimprove.
Opponents fear that charter schools and voucher plans willincrease social fragmentation, operate without sufficientaccountability, lead to a focus on marketing schools rather thanimproving instruction, and weaken conventional public schools bytaking funding and easy-to-educate students away from them.
Whose predictions are right? Existing charter schools andvoucher plans are still too new to provide conclusive evidence,according to a study published by RAND in December 2001.
In Rhetoric Versus Reality: What We Know andWhat We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools,RAND analysts Brian P. Gill, P. Michael Timpane, Karen E. Ross,and Dominic J. Brewer examine the available research and describehow charters and vouchers affect five policy goals: academicachievement, choice, equitable access, integration, and preparationfor civic responsibilities. Here are some major findings of thestudy.

Raising Academic Achievement

Small, experimental, privately funded voucher programs targetedto low-income students have produced modest achievement benefitsfor African American students. Other racial and ethnic groupshave experienced neither benefits nor harm in such voucher plans.Results of studies comparing academic achievement in charterschools with conventional public schools are mixed; some charterschools produce slight advantages and others produce slightdisadvantages. Research has not yet shown how charter schoolsand voucher programs affect the academic achievement of the largemajority of students who remain in conventional public schools.

Providing More Choice

Parents participating in voucher programs express greatsatisfaction with these programs. More-limited evidence fromcharter schools also suggests fairly high parent satisfaction.Research has not yet determined the success of voucher plans andcharter schools in producing enough high-quality schools fromwhich parents can choose.

Ensuring Access to Choice

Some programs that were explicitly designed with income qualificationshave succeeded in placing low-income, low-achieving, and minoritystudents in voucher schools. Most charter and voucher programs,however, have had less success extending access to students withdisabilities.

Increasing Integration

Effects of choice programs on integration are largely unknown.In the United States, charter schools have about the same racialand ethnic balance as local public schools. Evidence from othernations, however, suggests that large-scale, unregulated choiceprograms can lead to greater racial and ethnic stratification.

Promoting Citizenship

Research tells us almost nothing about whether charter schoolsand voucher programs—or conventional public schools, forthat matter—help students become good citizens.

Evidence Is Inconclusive

The RAND analysts conclude that we simply don't know yetwhether charter schools and voucher programs will fulfill theiradvocates' hopes or justify their critics' fears. Theresearchers write, “Our review of the evidence leaves uswithout a crisp, bottom-line judgment of the wisdom of voucherand charter programs.” They add that more experience andrigorous research are needed to shed light on the beneficial orharmful effects of these reforms:In the meantime, political decisions will undoubtedly bemade, for and against vouchers and charter schools. They willbe informed by good evidence, one hopes, but will not be fullyjustified by it for many years to come. (p. 233)
Rhetoric Versus Reality: What We Know andWhat We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools.Published by RAND, 1700 Main St., Santa Monica, CA 90401;www.rand.org/publications.Price: $15.00.
—Reviewed by Deborah Perkins-Gough, Senior Associate Editor, Educational Leadership; dperkins@ascd.org.

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 102277.jpg
Customizing Our Schools
Go To Publication