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Journal Issue: Financing Schools Volume 7 Number 3 Winter 1997

Considering Nontraditional Alternatives: Charters, Private Contracts, and Vouchers
Julia E. Koppich


Charter schools, vouchers, and contracts with private agencies providing educational services all reflect the belief that a substantial part of educational budgeting, decision making, and accountability should be based at the level of individual schools, rather than at the school district level. Though states are moving quickly to set up charter schools, and some states and districts are debating the merits of vouchers or experimenting with private contracts, in fact there is little information about the educational effectiveness of these innovations.

Charter schools face substantial challenges in financing and business operations; many state charter school laws provide no start-up or capital funds and only limited operational funds. In addition, many charter school laws are vague on key questions of authority and school-district relations. Contracting with private agencies presents a wide range of options, many of which have been tried in only a few locations. The most publicized contracts with private agencies to run multiple schools have included some highly visible disappointments and no clear successes as yet, though experience is too limited to draw conclusions about contracting in general.

Vouchers that may be used at private schools are extremely controversial for several reasons. Because private schools can decide which students they will accept, opponents are concerned that extensive use of vouchers may dramatically change the composition of the public school student body. It is also unclear whether vouchers to religious schools (which comprise 82% of all private schools in the United States) violate the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state.