Poster Paper: School Voucher Policies and Private School Markets: The Disconnect Dividing Supply and Demand

Saturday, November 8, 2014
Ballroom B (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Claire Smrekar and Ngaire Honey, Vanderbilt University


Tennessee legislators plan to pass a private school voucher plan in 2014 for 20,000 low-income students from the state’s lowest-performing public schools.  Notably, over 80% of these targeted low-performing schools and the economically disadvantaged students who qualify for vouchers are enrolled in a single school district --  the recently consolidated Memphis-Shelby County Schools District. The Tennessee school voucher plan will make Memphis one of the largest targeted school voucher cities in the U.S.  This paper identifies the local conditions, organizational contexts, and policy features that shape the role and reach of targeted voucher plans.

Theoretical Framework


Scant attention has been paid to the supply-side of voucher programs beyond identifying the categories of participating schools and sectors (secular or sectarian), or the reasons private schools accept or decline participation in voucher plans (Stuit & Doan, 2013). We argue that private school markets and mission characteristics define supply side conditions and shape the “geography of opportunity” (Briggs, 2005; Tate, 2008) by painting the landscape of authentic private school options for low-income voucher recipients.  This paper is conceptually motivated by classic market theory in the context of voucher policy design and implementation (Belfield, Levin & Schwartz, 2004),

Data & Methods

This study involves digitally recorded in-person interviews with private school leaders at 60 eligible voucher schools. in Shelby County. Transcripts were analyzed using the constant comparative method to discern themes associated with academic support structures, financial conditions, and accountability measures. Other data collected for review and content analysis include private schools’ mission statements, handbooks, and annual reports). Geo-spatial analysis (using Geographic Information Systems software) integrates census data related to the racial characteristics and poverty levels across neighborhoods with the demographic characteristics of voucher-eligible private schools in Shelby County


Results & Scholarly Significance


Findings indicate ways in which market capacity and voucher design features intersect to predict a distinctive, uneven pattern of participation (and non-participation) in a large district-targeted voucher plan. Our paper underscores specific voucher design features and private school sub-market characteristics that shape the actions and decisions of particular private school types (product; price-value), and create the pivot point for market-wide engagement  -- or disconnect -- with this school choice policy.

The qualitative (interviews and documents) findings highlight six specific market and mission-linked factors that shape the supply side of this targeted voucher:

academic support systems (for low performing students)

financial assistance and tuition levels (for low-income students)

organizational capacity (for expanded physical space)

political history and tolerance (for governmental oversight)

cultural continuity (with religious identity)

geo-spatial congruence (with geography of place, proximity)

The GIS maps and qualitative data suggest a severe shortage of participating schools (providers) in the Tennessee voucher plan, producing a wide gap between supply and demand curves. Although school voucher markets in Milwaukee and Racine, Cleveland, and Indiana indicate broad, expansive participation of Catholic schools  (Nechyba, 2000; Stuit & Doan, 2013), Shelby County reflects a smaller, more defined “niche” Catholic school market, raising critical questions about the efficacy of the proposed plan.