45 Years, 45 Days: The Case for School Vouchers


For the next 45 days, we'll be celebrating Reason's 45th anniversary by releasing a story a day from the archives—one for each year of the magazine's history. See the full list here.

Writing in Reason's January 1984 issue, John McClaughry reported on a little-known revolution that had occurred in public education in the state of Vermont:

Tracy and Jesse Torregrossa are the children of a pharmacist in Dorset, Vermont, located in the southeastern part of the state. This fall, Tracy started her senior year at Proctor School in New Hampshire, and Jesse began his third year of high school at Hebron Academy in Maine. Meanwhile, in the northeast corner of Vermont, Anna McClaughry is reading Shakespeare in the fifth grade at Riverside School, located in an old farmhouse near Lyndonville. Proctor School, Hebron Academy, and Riverside School are all private institutions. There's nothing unusual about that. What is unusual about the education of these three children is that their families live in Vermont school districts that in effect offer tuition vouchers to some or all of their pupils. The Dorset School District pays about a third of the private-school costs for the Torregrossas, and the town school district of Kirby pays the entire $1,750 annual tuition for Anna McClaughry's schooling.

This is extremely unusual in the United States, and it's more than a little ironic. Washington bureaucrats, Chicago free market economists, Harvard sociologists, and teachers-union officials from New York to California have argued for years over the idea of education vouchers, even seeing a much-ballyhooed but ill-fated "voucher experiment" come and go in the 1970s. Meanwhile, students in almost 100 Vermont towns have quietly received education vouchers from their local school districts, just as their parents and grandparents did before them. Now Vermonters have never used the word voucher to describe what happens there, and some state officials were kind of skittish about a reporter coming around and asking questions. Nevertheless, long before the rest of the country had ever heard of the idea, many Vermonters were benefiting from a system whereby the local government uses tax monies to pay for education rather than to provide it.