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Private school vouchers in developing countries: A survey of the evidence

Tue, March 7, 2:45 to 4:15pm, Sheraton Atlanta, Floor: 1, Georgia 5 (South Tower)


In this study, we examine one form of government interaction with the private education sector that has been increasing in its implementation in low- and middle-income countries: private school vouchers. If policymakers in developing countries are to continue using school vouchers in their education reforms, it is imperative that they design these programs based on trustworthy scientific research and sound policy advice. As a response to this reality, the intent of this paper is (i) to provide a review of the existing rigorous evaluations of school voucher programs in developing countries, and (ii) to provide guidance for education policymakers in their decisions regarding whether and how to implement effective school voucher interventions for addressing issues of school quality, access, and equity.

To date, the theoretical frameworks and philosophical arguments in favor of school vouchers in the United States and other industrialized country contexts are largely driven by the aims of (i) productive efficiency, (ii) equity, and (iii) freedom of choice. Given these existing theoretical priorities, our review of the literature highlights the impact of school vouchers across these outcomes, as well as highlight issues unique to developing country contexts that should be considered when making school voucher decisions – for instance, the effect of voucher programs on schooling access and participation.

We conduct a narrative review of the existing experimental and quasi-experimental evaluations of private school voucher programs in low- and middle-income countries (nine studies across six countries).

Informed by the review of evidence, we develop a framework for assessing the applicability of school vouchers for various educational contexts and provide guidance on design considerations for maximizing equity, quality, and efficiency of voucher policies. An application of this framework is demonstrated in the case of a proposed secondary school voucher intervention in Tanzania.

With respect to student learning, the overall evidence suggests that, on average, voucher students in private schools perform at equivalent levels as they would in public schools. Universal voucher policies should not be expected to yield significant changes in the productive efficiency of education systems, and they are likely to reinforce existing social stratification. However, with regard to educational access, the existing research unambiguously shows that (targeted) school vouchers in developing countries have been an effective means of expanding access to education, particularly for underserved populations (poor students, girls, and in underserved rural and urban communities).
The application of our framework in Tanzania suggests that, given the country’s current secondary education context, school vouchers could be applied effectively only to complement the existing government system by funding students with low average household wealth in locations with the lowest secondary enrollment rates and without access to government services.

This research has significance both for its contribution to the existing scholarly research on school vouchers in lower-income countries and for its direct applicability for policymakers considering adoption of voucher policies.