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What is a school voucher?

Revered and reviled, school vouchers are a hot-button topic in the school choice arena. But what do they mean for you, the parent? Here's what you need to know, state by state.

By Becky Vevea

A voucher allows parents to use public funds to pay for some or all of their child’s private school tuition. Vouchers are created and distributed by state governments, in most cases.

The first voucher program, created in 1991 in Milwaukee, WS, was designed to give low-income families more high-quality school options. Roughly 300 students were served in the first year. Today, 12 states and the District of Colombia have voucher systems serving more than just low-income families. They are Arizona, Colorado, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin. A number of those and other states have tax credit programs that partially subsidize private schooling.

Voucher programs are politically contentious. They often face harsh scrutiny from critics who say they blur the lines between church and state or destroy public education because they drain much-needed resources from public schools and lack the oversight that exists in public institutions. Advocates contend that these programs provide families, especially those who cannot afford private school tuition, with alternatives when a school or school system fails. They also argue that parents should not have to pay for schooling twice (in both taxes and tuition). As well, vouchers are promoted as a way to improve public education by introducing competition.

How do vouchers work?

Voucher laws essentially reimburse parents for the amount of money that would have otherwise been used to educate their child in a public school. Parents can use the money to pay some or all of a private school’s tuition (or in some cases, a public school in another district). The amount of money varies by state, but the average ranges from $2,000 to $5,000. In a few special cases, they are as little as $500 (Illinois school tax credits) or as much as $25,000 (private school subsidies for special needs students in Oklahoma).

Many voucher programs have agreements with the participating private schools to allow the voucher amount to cover full tuition. Others provide a set amount, which sometimes covers and sometimes doesn’t cover the full private school tuition. Typically, religiously affiliated schools cost less than private independent schools.

In most states, once a parent requests a voucher, the money flows directly from the government to the private school. The amount of money varies from state to state and is adjusted annually. According to the American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice group, state governments across the country allocated a total of $800 million to vouchers and tax credit programs in 2011-12. The portion of government money that goes to religiously-affiliated schools varies by state, but in many cases it’s well over half.

Some states offer tax credits for private schooling instead of vouchers. In those cases, an individual can get a credit on their tax return or a corporation can get a tax break for giving money to private scholarship organizations. The credits may be small or may be enough to cover full tuition at a private school. These programs are not typically included in the controversial debate over vouchers, largely because money does not flow directly from a public entity to a private institution. But in a few recent cases, tax credits have been proposed or used to avoid legal battles involving the separation of church and state. That’s because money flows through a middle man, in this case a scholarship organization. Such programs have drawn criticism for not serving the neediest students.

How do I get a voucher?

It depends on where you live. In most states, parents are required to fill out additional paperwork with the state or at the private school where they want to enroll their child.

To get more information, usually the best place to start is usually your state’s department of education. Many states operate websites with applications, lists of private schools and eligibility requirements. Many states have an income requirement and families must provide financial information to determine whether or not they are eligible. In some places, there is a limited number of children who can get vouchers and strict deadlines, so early research and applications are encouraged.

Below is a list of states with voucher programs and their requirements.

Arizona

Created in 2011, Arizona’s voucher program is exclusively for students with disabilities. The Empowerment Scholarship Account allows parents to take their child out of a public school and get a portion of the money used by the school. They can then use that money how they want — for private school, tutoring, or future college costs.

Arizona also has three different tax credit programs. Parents apply through the state after their child is already admitted and enrolled in a private school. One, called Lexie’s Law, provides tax-credits to special education and foster care students that allow them to attend a private or public school of their choice.
Furthermore, both individuals and corporations can receive tax credits if they contribute to private school scholarship funds.

Colorado

Colorado's voucher program — the Choice Scholarship Pilot Program — is based in the Douglas County School District, where it was launched in 2011. The program caps the number of students at 500. If more students apply, there is a lottery.

There is no income requirement and parents can apply through the local district to the Choice Scholarship School, which then distributes vouchers to cover all or part of private school tuition inside or outside of Douglas County. Students must have attended a Douglas County public school for at least one year.

In August 2011, a state judge blocked the program, in part because it serves one of Colorado’s wealthier counties. Nine years ago, the state attempted to implement the Colorado Opportunity Contract Program, which would give students in low-performing schools a voucher to attend a private school, but it also was struck down in the courts.

Washington D.C.

One of the more well-known voucher programs, Washington D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Programis aimed at low-income families. Unlike other voucher programs across the country, the federal government funds D.C.'s voucher program, which runs separately from its public school system.

To participate, parents first must choose a school that they want to send their child to. (Go here for a list of participating private schools.) Once a child is accepted, parents apply online and must meet income requirements in order to get a scholarship to pay for tuition. Vouchers are good for only one year, so parents must re-apply each year. Voucher amounts range from $8,000 for elementary school to $12,000 for high school.

Congress has heavily debated continuing this program. Initially authorized to last five years, it was renewed in 2011 as part of a larger package signed by President Barack Obama to avoid a government shutdown. Though reauthorization meant another five years, in 2012 Obama proposed cutting the program’s funding. After outcry from many in congress, the U.S. Department of Education agreed to restore funding for another year.

Florida

Florida has both a voucher program for students with disabilities and a tax credit program.

The John McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program offers vouchers to students with disabilities and can be used to attend a private school or another public school that's not their mandated public school (so they could go to another county or a school with a better program for, say, autism). Any parent of a student with special needs can apply; there are no income requirements or limits to how many students can get vouchers.

Florida’s tax credit program started in 2001 and is aimed at low-income students and children in foster care. Voucher amounts vary and are determined by the scholarship organizations. (Go here to apply for a scholarship.)

Georgia

Georgia also has two voucher programs: one for special need students, another a tax credit program.

Modeled after Florida’s McKay vouchers, Georgia's special need voucher program offers vouchers to parents of students with special needs who are not happy with their current public school. There are no income requirements or limits on the number of students receiving vouchers.

Georgia also has a tax credit program that gives people and corporations tax breaks if they donate to private school scholarship organizations. The scholarship organizations then distribute money to families that may not be otherwise able to attend a private school.

Scholarships are distributed by scholarship organizations and amounts vary, but cannot exceed what the state spends per child. There are no income requirements and all students can apply.

Illinois

The state of Illinois provides individual tax credits up to $500 to parents who send their children to public or private school. The credit is designed to offset tuition costs, books, activity fees, and other school-related expenses. 

Indiana

One of the newest in the country and the second to apply to children state-wide, Indiana’s voucher program gives students what state officials coined “choice scholarships” to attend private schools. This gives low-income families a full voucher based on the average amount spent per child in districts across the state. Middle-income families can get a partial voucher.

Parents usually apply directly at the school, which then receives money from the state. Participating private schools are also allowed to charge above and beyond the amount of the voucher provided by the government. (Go here for a list of private schools that accept voucher students.)

Iowa

Since 1987, individual families in Iowa can receive tax credits up to $250 if their child attends a public or private school. The credit is designed to offset the cost of tuition, books, and other school fees.

Iowa also has a tax credit for individuals or corporations that donate money for scholarships to private schools. The program is not as large as tax credit programs in other state, with a total credit cap at $14.5 million. Credits are about $1,000 on average and last year, served about 11,000 students. Families include these credits on their tax forms each year.

Louisiana

Louisiana’s voucher programs serve low-income families, children in schools labeled as “failing,” and students with special needs. Lawmakers recently voted to significantly expand the program so that almost half of all schoolchildren in the state are eligible. At this time, several lawsuits have been filed against the expansion.

Families that qualify can apply to the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence through the state Department of Education or on-site at a participating school. Students rank five private schools they wish to attend and are admitted through a lottery. (Go here for a list of schools.) 

Students with special needs who live in a city of a population over 190,000 can get a voucher to cover part of private school tuition. Not all disabilities are eligible.

Louisiana also gives tax deductions to individuals up to $5,000 per student. When filing a tax return, parents can provide receipts for tuition, books or other student fees for either private or public school.

Maine

Some small and rural towns in Maine do not operate public schools at certain grade levels. The TownTuitioning Program, established in 1873, allows children who live in those places to attend public or private schools in other cities on the local school district’s dime. The maximum amount spent by a local district is determined by the state and updated annually. (Go here to find out which school districts have this option.) To get a voucher, parents should contact their local school board.

In 1980, Maine's state’s attorney general ruled that parents could no longer choose private schools with religious affiliations. (Go here for a list of private schools that are part of the Town-Tuitioning program).

Minnesota

Parents in Minnesota can apply for a tax credit to offset public or private school expenses, but no true voucher program exists. No more than $1,000 per child is granted.

North Carolina

If a child has special needs, their parents are eligible to claim a tax credit up to $6,000 in order to offset public or private school costs.

Ohio

Ohio has two voucher programs — EdChoice, which is statewide— and the Cleveland Scholarship and Tuitioning Program.

The first state-wide voucher program, EdChoice gives students in failing public schools money to attend a participating private school. The voucher amount is set by the state and is currently a maximum of $4,250 for elementary schools and $5,000 for high schools. If the private school tuition costs more, parents must make up the difference.

Aid is available for low-income families. Applications and paperwork are dealt with through the private school, so parents should apply there first. Annual renewal is required to continue using the voucher. (Go here for more information and a list of participating schools.) Students with autism and other disabilities can also get vouchers through EdChoice. These vouchers can be worth more than normal vouchers, depending on the severity of the disability.

The Cleveland Scholarship and Tuitioning Program distribute vouchers for private schools through a lottery that gives low-income families preference. Applications are filled out with the private school, which then enters a family's information into an online system. (For more information and a list of participating schools, click here)

Oklahoma

The Panhandle state now has two voucher programs — one for students with disabilities and another for low-income families.

The Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarships launched in 2012-13. Primarily low-income families are eligible. Students can get up to $5,000 for private school tuition, fees and transportation costs. (No website is currently available for more information on the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarships.)

Students with disabilities are also able to get vouchers worth up to $25,000 for private school tuition.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania offers a tax credit to corporations who give money for private school scholarships. Children are eligible to get private school scholarships if their parents make less than $60,000, plus $12,000 per child in the family. (For example, a family with one child must have an income below $72,00; a family with two children must have an income below $84,000.) Scholarships, which average $1,165, are awarded through outside scholarship organizations; about 40,000 were awarded in 2010-11. There are about 240 scholarship organizations in the state, but two of the largest are, the Bravo Foundation and the Bridge Education Foundation.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island does not have a voucher program in the traditional sense. They do, however, provide tax credits to corporations that provide private school scholarships. The state caps the credit amount at $100,000 per corporate donor. In order to receive a scholarship that benefits from this program, a family’s income cannot exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($55,875 for a family of four in 2011). Approximately 460 students participated in 2011 and averaged a scholarship of $2,264.

Parents interested in one of these scholarships, can apply through the Rhode Island Scholarship Alliance or a participating Scholarship Granting Organization.

Utah

The state of Utah operates a voucher program for students with disabilities, called the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship Program. Parents must apply through the Utah Department of Education and vouchers are currently distributed through a lottery. The amount of the voucher varies and is dependent on the amount of special education services the child would otherwise get at a public school. The voucher is good for three years and can be renewed. (Go here for a list of private schools that disabled students can attend.)

Legislators have proposed expanding vouchers to more than just students with disabilities, but no laws have been passed. The number of students awarded vouchers is also dependent on the state’s budget, which includes an appropriation for the program.

Vermont

Like Maine, some towns in Vermont do not operate public schools at certain grade levels, in most cases, high school. For children who live in those districts, the local school board pays tuition for them to attend public or independent schools in other cities or states. The local board covers the full cost if the child attends another public school. But, if the child attends a private school, the district is only required to pay an amount equal to what would be spent in a public school and the parent must make up the difference.

The program has existed since 1869. After a state Supreme Court decision in 1999, the tuition payment could no longer be applied to religiously affiliated schools. (Go here for a list of school districts with this option.) Parents who live in places like this should contact the local school board to get a voucher.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin has two voucher programs — the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and the newly implemented Parental Private School Choice Program in Racine, WS. Families with a total income of up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level can enroll for a tuition voucher worth about $6,500. More than 100 schools accept students through the voucher program. Parents apply through the school, which then files paperwork with the state.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program prompted the creation of schools that served almost 100 percent voucher students and, in some cases, lacked certified teachers and adequate curriculum standards. The law was changed in 2009 and now, all schools must be accredited by one of three organizations and approved by the Institute for Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

In 2011, the income limit was increased, allowing more families to participate. Families that make between 200 and 300 percent of the federal poverty level are also able to contribute more than the $6,500 if they want to attend a more expensive private school. High schools with per pupil costs above $6,500 can require additional tuition for voucher families above 200 percent of the federal povery level.
 

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