School Vouchers:

Characteristics of Privately Funded Programs

GAO-02-752: Published: Sep 10, 2002. Publicly Released: Sep 26, 2002.

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Privately funded voucher programs are a new development in the nation's experiment with school vouchers. These programs, started in the early 1990s, provide low-income families with private, nongovernmental tuition assistance at private schools for kindergarten through grade 12. Although private schools have long offered various forms of financial assistance, many of these privately funded voucher programs are different from traditional scholarship efforts in two key respects: they are open to any applicant solely on the basis of family income level, and recipients are free to decide which schools their children should attend. The 78 privately funded voucher programs GAO reviewed shared numerous characteristics and faced common challenges, but the programs varied widely in the dollar amount of the vouchers awarded and the number of students receiving them. The average voucher amount in school year 2001-2002 ranged widely among programs, from $600 to $2,000 per student, and program size ranged from as few as four students to over 3,000 students. Beyond the information needed to determine eligibility and conduct financial oversight, most programs reported collecting little data about participating students, their families, or the schools they attended. Program officials said that voucher programs face two major challenges--sustaining programs for the long term and retaining students in the programs. Some programs have begun developing ways to address these challenges. Rigorous evaluations of privately funded voucher programs in New York, Dayton, and Washington, D.C., provided some evidence that African Americans students who used vouchers to attend private schools showed greater improvements in math and reading than students in the comparison group and have also found that the parents of voucher users of all racial and ethnic groups were consistently more satisfied with their children's education than parents of comparison group students.

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