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Feb. 6: Universal School Vouchers Would Benefit More Families Than Nonsectarian Vouchers, Carnegie Mellon Research Shows


Geof Becker                           

Universal School Vouchers Would Benefit More Families
Than Nonsectarian Vouchers, Carnegie Mellon Research Shows

Tepper School Model Provides Clearest Insight Yet on Potential Impact of Voucher Programs

(Note to editors: Access a video interview of Dr. Maria Ferreyra discussing her school voucher research at

PITTSBURGH — When it comes to providing greater gains in the quality of education, universal vouchers that allow parents to select the best private school regardless of religious affiliation win over nonsectarian vouchers that limit choice, according to research from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.  The universal vouchers would also benefit a greater number of households, particularly among lower-income families. 

The research used a new economic model to simulate two potential large-scale K-12 school voucher programs - one universal, one nonsectarian - each of which provided vouchers in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $7,000 to students across more than 50 school districts in the Chicago area.

In the simulations, the universal voucher program enabled every household to be eligible for any type of private school, whereas the nonsectarian vouchers could not be used for religious schools. In addition to providing benefits for fewer households overall, the nonsectarian program was more likely to provide lower gains in the quality of education, particularly for lower-income families, the research found.

"The quality of a private school is often reflected in its cost. For a lower-income family to afford the better schools, it would need to obtain a more generous voucher," said Maria Marta Ferreyra, assistant professor of economics at the Tepper School. "But the policy debates often result in too few vouchers at too low a value.  As long as vouchers continue to be considered a viable remedy to low-quality public schools, an effective voucher program should include more vouchers at a higher value.  Unless it does, educators will not achieve their policy goals of ensuring that lower-income families have an equivalent opportunity to access high-quality schools enjoyed by higher-income families."

The study also showed that voucher programs tend to induce migration. Some suburbanites may move to the city to take advantage of private schools and lower property taxes relative to property values, while some urban families may move to the suburbs to take advantage of public schools and good housing - which becomes cheaper as some suburbanites move to the city.

"That vouchers can have such differing effects on migration reveals the complexity and nuances not always understood in voucher programs. Not only can these programs impact school quality, funding and student population demographics, but they can also affect residential property values, taxes and the demographic makeup of the city and the suburbs," Ferreyra said. 

The study - the first to integrate household religious preference - identified many households that might use a universal voucher for a religious education.  However, religious school enrollment would fall under nonsectarian vouchers, given that only those households with a strong preference for religious schools and the ability to pay for them would remain.

Private school vouchers, long a controversial topic in the debate over education reform in the United States, are currently the subject of small-scale experiments in such locations as Cleveland, Milwaukee and the District of Columbia, and are under consideration in scores of states. Between 1999 and 2006, 42 states considered enacting voucher programs. As interest in using vouchers to improve educational opportunities and as a tool to leverage improvements in public school systems may grow, the models built in this paper may help policy makers develop more effective programs.

Ferreyra's study, titled "Estimating the Effects of Private School Vouchers in Multidistrict Economies," appeared in the June 2007 issue of The American Economic Review.  It is available for download at