How Can Schools Be Voucherized? Let Us Count the Ways… and the Consequences

School privatization via vouchers has been endorsed by President Donald Trump. Private school vouchers are also a favorite cause of Vice President Mike Pence and the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  Most of us are not particularly familiar with vouchers in general because they have until now been a project of state governments. We are likely to know about what’s happening in our own state, but perhaps be unaware about trends across the states. Did you know, for example, that school vouchers are called by a number of names?

5 Names Politicians Use to Sell Private-School Voucher Schemes to Parents is a short resource that clarifies how all these programs work: “(V)ouchers divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools—starving them of the critical funding needed for students to thrive—only to use these funds to subsidize private and/or religious schools.  However, voucher proponents, like (Betsy) DeVos and politicians found in your state almost never call them vouchers. Instead, they attempt to mislead parents, taxpayers, and voters by re-branding these plots to drain and defund public education with some pleasant-sounding, flowery name plucked from the school-choice lexicon—Opportunity Scholarships—Parental Choice Scholarships—Tuition Tax Credits—Charitable Tax Credits—Education Savings Accounts.”

NEA explains that Opportunity and Parental Choice Scholarships give parents public money to use for tuition (and sometimes transportation, fees, and equipment) at private and parochial schools.  Because these vouchers are insufficient to pay for tuition at a great many traditional private schools which charge as much as private colleges, vouchers are frequently used by parents of students at religious schools.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the only federally funded voucher scholarship program is the one in the District of Columbia. Congress has never been able to muster the support to enact vouchers federally—only in Washington, D.C. where, perhaps not coincidentally, the residents lack a voting Congressional representative. Vouchers, which began in Milwaukee back in 1989, have grown steadily as statehouses have tipped toward domination by the far right. Today, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have plain old voucher (scholarship) programs in which students are given a publicly funded coupon to cover tuition at a private or parochial school: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin, along with Maine and Vermont which have both had longstanding tax scholarship programs for children in isolated rural areas lacking public school districts.

Tuition Tax Credits are also a kind of vouchers. Here is how David Berliner and Gene Glass define tuition tax credits in their book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: “There are tax credits and then there are tax deductions. They are very different things. Suppose you and your spouse have an income of $100,000…. And suppose that the federal income taxes you owe… amount to about $25,000 a year. If you take a tax deduction for your contribution of $1,000 to the Red Cross, that will reduce your tax indebtedness by about $250. Not so with tax credits… If you and your spouse live in a state with a state income tax (and a tuition tax credit program)… then you can direct $1,000, say, of your state income tax to the My-Pet-Project fund, and your state income tax indebtedness will be reduced by the full $1,000.” (p. 188) For parents in states with tuition tax credits, the pet project is the education of their own children, but some states also have broader Charitable Tax Credits for education—tuition tax credit programs that allow individuals and corporations to contribute to state school tuition organizations that then make scholarship grants to students to pay for their tuition at private schools.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of December 2016, 17 states offered different types of tuition tax credits: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia.

The National Education Association defines another—the newest—kind of vouchers: Education Savings Accounts: “Education Savings Accounts (ESA) are the latest trend in publicly subsidized private school education… (T)he common factor is that these programs pay parents all or a large portion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children in exchange for an agreement to forego their right to a public education. Funds deposited into such accounts may be used for any number of expenses, including private school tuition, fees, textbooks; tutoring and test prep; homeschooling curriculum and supplemental materials; special instruction and therapeutic services; transportation; and management fees. These programs also permit parents to roll over unused funds for use in subsequent years and to invest a portion of the funds into college savings plans.” In Education Savings Account voucher plans, the state itself deposits funds in parents’ accounts, and the parents can shop around for particular services, perhaps split among a number of vendors.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as December 2016, only 5 states had such programs—Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee, though Nevada’s program is on hold because the state supreme court found its funding system unconstitutional.

Vouchers of all forms have arrived in the 50 state capitols in the form of bills cooked up elsewhere and then introduced by sympathetic legislators who are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC, a membership organization, pairs member state legislators with corporate lobbyist members and with members who represent special interests—in the case of vouchers, the ideologues from the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization), and the Friedman Foundation, now called EdChoice—to create model laws that can then be handed to member state legislators to be introduced in any state. ALEC is often dubbed a bill mill.  ALEC’s model bills for various kinds of vouchers include a Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, Opportunity Scholarships, the Smart Start Scholarship Program, the Education Savings Account Act, and the Great Schools Tax Credit Act.

Here is Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, in a recent column commenting on what vouchers do to public school funding. This time the example is Mike Pence’s home state, Indiana: “Vouchers drain state tax dollars, creating deficits, or the need for tax increases. When Indiana started its voucher program, it claimed it would save taxpayers money. Not only did that not happen, the state’s education budget is now in deficit, and the millions shelled out for vouchers grows each year. Last year, vouchers cost the taxpayers of Indiana $131.5 million as caps and income levels were raised. Indiana now gives vouchers to families with incomes as high as $90,000 and to students who never attended a public school.” Burris adds that while the program was passed, “promising that it would help poor and lower-middle class families find schools they like for their children… as it turned out, five years after it began, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients have never attended Indiana public schools and many vouchers are going to wealthier families, those earning up to $90,000 for a household of four.”

Last week, writing for the Los Angeles Times, Milwaukee journalist, Barbara Miner shared her insights after observing the Milwaukee voucher program since its beginning: “For more than a quarter-century, I have reported on the voucher program in Milwaukee: the country’s first contemporary voucher initiative and a model for other cities and state programs, from Cleveland to New Orleans, Florida to Indiana.  Milwaukee’s program began in 1990, when the state Legislature passed a bill allowing 300 students in seven nonsectarian private schools to receive taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. It was billed as a small, low-cost experiment to help poor black children, and had a five-year sunset clause. That was the bait. The first ‘switch’ came a few weeks later, when the Republican governor eliminated the sunset clause. Ever since, vouchers have been a divisive yet permanent fixture in Wisconsin.” “Since 1990, roughly $2 billion in public money has been funneled into private and religious schools in Wisconsin, and the payments keep escalating.” “Today, some 33,000 students in 212 schools receive publicly funded vouchers, not just in Milwaukee but throughout Wisconsin. If it were its own school district, the voucher program would be the state’s second largest. The overwhelming majority of the schools are religious.”

A serious problem, reports Miner, is that voucher schools are not required to protect the civil rights of their students, including the rights guaranteed by federal law in all public schools: “Because they are defined as ‘private,’ voucher schools operate by separate rules, with minimal public oversight or transparency. They can sidestep basic constitutional protections such as freedom of speech. They do not have to provide the same level of second-language or special-education services. They can suspend or expel students without legal due process. They can ignore the state’s requirements for open meetings and records. They can disregard state law prohibiting discrimination against students on grounds of sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, or marital or parental status.”

Miner warns, “Wisconsin has sunk so deep into this unaccountable world that our voucher program not only turns a blind eye toward discrimination in voucher schools, it forces the public to pay for such discrimination… Privatizing an essential public function and forcing the public to pay for it, even while removing it from meaningful public oversight, weakens our democracy.”

14 thoughts on “How Can Schools Be Voucherized? Let Us Count the Ways… and the Consequences

  1. School choice and parental empowerment to direct the education of their children, are coming down the track. By whatever name you call it, vouchers to give parents control of their education dollars, will be arriving to more and more parents.

    When life insurance companies started calling life insurance “Estate planning”, their sales took off. We should keep in mind, the power of marketing, which is just as important in politics as it is in retail sales.

    I am 1000% in favor of public education. I believe that school choice/parental empowerment will be a terrific boon to public/government operated schools, by forcing them to face the discipline of the marketplace.

    • Charles, you don’t seem like you are 1000% in favor of public schools if you are talking about how terrific it will be to force them “to face the discipline of the marketplace.”
      In case you hadn’t noticed, public schools aren’t pizza parlors, they are not businesses of any kind- or at least, they shouldn’t be. Should they be improved? Yes, but not by taking away their resources to provide vouchers for non-publicly accountable private schools.
      Much of the problem with the growth of the voucher programs and the for-profit and also non-accountable charter schools occurred because in too many states, business men and women and billionaires who know nothing about education have been running the state education departments, and now we have one at the federal level.
      I repeat, public schools are not pizza parlors.
      And ultimately, if we really want to “fix” those public schools that are in trouble, then we need to do something about poverty and its profound effects on our children, as well as society in general.

      • I went to public schools K-12, and then to a public university. I agree that government/public schools are not pizza parlors. So what. Public schools , when operating in a state with school choice(vouchers), will face the discipline of the marketplace. They will either have to deliver quality education, or else be faced with loss of both students and revenue. When a parent (in New Hampshire) withdraws a child from a public school, and moves to California, the New Hampshire school is faced with both a loss of the student and a loss of revenue. When a parent withdraws a student from a public school, and enrolls the student in a private/parochial school elsewhere, the public school is faced with both the loss of the student, and the loss of revenue. Same thing.

        As far as doing something about the various social ills that face all of us (poverty, fatherlessness, poor nutrition, crime, drugs, etc) i am all for mobilizing against this ills. Nevertheless, I believe we can multi-task, and improve our educational choices, and move towards a more perfect union.

      • So, you would be in favor of removing resources from public schools for these vouchers and charters, and meanwhile throw the English Language Learners, the special education kids, the kids with behavior problems, under the bus? Or maybe just warehouse them?
        Because I guarantee you that almost all private and charter schools will either not accept these students in the first place, or will bounce them out of their schools in short order. They are not required to follow the federal laws mandating appropriate education for the special needs kids, so even they keep a few, they will for the most part not provide the extensive services they require.
        Sure, there are private special education schools, but their tuition is almost always way more than what the vouchers will cover, and it’s virtually impossible to get the school districts to pay for their tuition and room and board when the parents take the district through “due process.” I know, because I have been involved as a special education consultant with some of these families.
        And yes, I am a retired special education teacher who then did educational consulting, private tutoring, and parent advocacy after I retired from classroom teaching.
        So, guarantee for me that children with special educational needs will still be able to access the specialized educational and related services that they need in your “competition” schools.
        Guarantee for me that the private schools and the for-profit charter schools that receive public tax dollars, will be held accountable to that same public for the money they spend and how they spend it, as public schools are now required to do.
        Guarantee for me that those same private and for-profit charter schools will be required to follow all federal and state laws.

      • YES! I am in favor of removing resources and students from schools, when the parents choose to do so. Special needs children English (second language), handicapped, learning disabled students will not be robbed of resources under a choice plan. Why would anyone think so?

        If private/parochial schools are not providing a proper education, then this can be remedied by legislation.

        Q So, guarantee for me that children with special educational needs will still be able to access the specialized educational and related services that they need in your “competition” schools.
        Guarantee for me that the private schools and the for-profit charter schools that receive public tax dollars, will be held accountable to that same public for the money they spend and how they spend it, as public schools are now required to do.
        Guarantee for me that those same private and for-profit charter schools will be required to follow all federal and state laws. END Q

        I absolutely refuse to issue any such guarantees. States and municipalities can issue regulations and legislation to address such issues.

        The important concept to remember in school choice, is that the PARENTS receive the voucher. The parents then choose to redeem the voucher at the school of their choice. No private/parochial school receives money from the public purse.

      • Charles, I hope you are being paid well for being a shill and a mouthpiece for private school vouchers. I refuse to respond to your uninformed propaganda any longer.
        Have a nice day. Or not.

      • I am not a shill nor a mouthpiece. I am a private citizen, only. I support parental choice and parental empowerment. We have a “mix” of public/private/parochial universities in this nation, and we can have a “mix” of public/private/parochial schooling at the K-12 level.

        Government does not have “dibs” on out children’s minds.

  2. Thanks, Jan, for this excellent compilation of information regarding vouchers, or school choice.
    On the surface, school choice might sound like a great idea to some, but , author and educator, Jonathan Kozo, explained it this way: “Slice it any way you want. Argue, as we must, that every family ought to have the right to make whatever choice they like in the interests of their child, no matter what damage it may do to other people’s children. As an individual decision, it’s absolutely human; but setting up this kind of competition, in which parents with the greatest social capital are encouraged to abandon their most vulnerable neighbors, is rotten social policy. What this represents is a state-supported shriveling of civic virtue, a narrowing of moral obligation to the smallest possible parameters. For all its imperfections and constant need of diligent repair, public education remains a vision worth preserving.”

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  4. Hi Jan – Good blog! (As usual.) On another matter: internet education. Bill McKibben, in a recent review in the NYRB, lays into mechanized “teaching,” Did you know (I seem to recall we’d discussed this some time ago) the McKibben is the nephew of the late and much lamented Bill McKibben of the Grinnell classics department. What wonderful people Bill and Betty (also a classicist) were.

    Trump continues to exhibit his comprehensive incompetence. Scarier by the day.


  5. Pingback: Many Predict Trump-DeVos Will Privatize with Tuition Tax Credits, Not Plain Old Vouchers | janresseger

  6. Pingback: Trump and DeVos Harp on School Choice, a Lifeboat Strategy to Save a Few Students | janresseger

  7. Pingback: Stanford Researcher Presents the Evidence Against Trump-DeVos Voucher Plans | janresseger

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