school vouchers, government grants aimed at improving education for the children of low-income families by providing school tuition that can be used at public or private schools. The idea behind school vouchers is to give parents a wider choice of educational institutions and approaches; it is also assumed that competition from private schools will pressure public schools into providing a better education for their students. The first school-voucher program instituted in the United States was a state-funded effort begun in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1990; a 1995 federal bill proposed setting up pilot school-voucher plans in 26 American cities.
The voucher concept has been controversial, and critics have voiced concerns that such programs, if broadly applied, ultimately could destroy the American public-school system. The issue of the constitutionality of taxpayer-financed vouchers was sidestepped at the federal level in 1998 when the Supreme Court chose not to review a state court ruling that upheld the use of vouchers in Milwaukee. In 1999, however, a federal court held that when a voucher system used in Ohio resulted in almost all recipients attending religious instead of public schools the system violated the Constitution, but in 2002 the Supreme Court narrowly ruled that the program provided "true private choice." Meanwhile, in Florida a program was initiated (1999) in which vouchers, good at private religious and nonreligious schools, were given to children whose public schools had failed standardized tests, but the program has been challenged in the state courts. By the end of the 20th cent. various kinds of voucher programs were being implemented in 31 U.S. states and were utilized by nearly 65,000 students. There is no incontrovertible evidence that the use of vouchers has improved the education of students using them, either at private or public schools, but often it also is not clear whether poor educational results are in fact the fault of the schools or the result of other causes.