Vouchers: Should States Be Subsidizing Private Education at a Steep Cost to Public Schools?

Wisconsin and Ohio were the pioneers, the states which launched school vouchers—public tax dollars covering private school tuition.  Wisconsin launched Milwaukee vouchers in 1990, and Ohio followed suit in 1996 with a Cleveland voucher program.

What are the problems with the idea of vouchers?

Vouchers have always been endorsed by their proponents as providing an escape for promising students from so-called “failing” public schools—as measured by test scores.  But research demonstrates (see here and here) that test scores correlate not with school quality but instead with the aggregate income of the neighborhoods where public schools are located and the families who live there.  Research demonstrates that ameliorating student poverty would more directly address students’ needs.

The idea that vouchers help students academically hasn’t held up either.  A study by the pro-voucher Thomas Fordham Institute demonstrates that in Ohio, voucher students regularly fall behind their public school counterparts.  But proponents of school privatization (including the Thomas Fordham Institute itself) regularly ignore the evidence.

In a recent summary published in The Nation, Jennifer Berkshire explains that while there is a lack of empirical evidence justifying vouchers, their proponents support them ideologically: “But the GOP’s true policy aim these days is much more ambitious: private school vouchers for all. In Ohio, students in two-thirds of the state’s school districts are now eligible for vouchers, a ballooning program that is on track to cost taxpayers $350 million by the end of the school year. And in Florida, school vouchers are now being offered to middle-class students, the latest gambit by conservatives in their effort to redefine public education as anything parents want to spend taxpayer money on. ‘For me, if the taxpayer is paying for the education, it’s public education,’ Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis proclaimed earlier this year.”

In Ohio, based on state report card grades which legislators from both parties seem to agree are deeply flawed, vouchers are now to be awarded to students in so-called ‘under-performing’ schools in 400 of the state’s 610 school districts. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver explains, “(T)he legislature has widened the definition of a low-performing school to the point of absurdity, expanding the list of districts with ‘under-performing’ schools from 40 in the fall of 2018, to 139 in 2019, and around 400—nearly two-thirds of all districts in the state—by 2020.”

And EdChoice, one of the Ohio’s four statewide voucher programs, takes the money through the deduction method, counting the voucher student as enrolled in the local school and then extracting $4,650 for each elementary school voucher and $6,000 for each high school voucher right out of the public school district’s budget. But a serious problem arises because in Ohio, state funding is allocated at different rates from school district to school district, and in many cases the vouchers extract more dollars per pupil from the local school budget than the state awards to that district in per pupil state aid.

This year’s state budget brought a new threat to public schools via an amendment quietly added and never debated. Until this year, to qualify for a voucher, an Ohio student must have been enrolled in the public school in the year previous to applying for the voucher.  But, secreted into the state budget last summer was an amendment providing that high school students may now receive a voucher even if they have never been enrolled in a public school.

Finally there is the problem that, due to years of tax cuts, school funding for a mass of Ohio school districts is capped.  Even though these districts are subsidizing an increasing number of vouchers for students who have never been enrolled in public schools, the school districts are not receiving annual increases in state aid to cover those students’ vouchers.

Staver interviews Howard Fleeter, the state’s school finance policy expert: “What’s happened, Fleeter said, is that parents who have always sent their kids to private school applied for these vouchers, which are funded by the public schools. ‘They never would send their kids to a public school, and now they are getting a voucher… You’re just giving them a handout.’  In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district where Fleeter grew up, the number of applications for high school vouchers increased by 478% in a single year…. And its total voucher bill went up by about $3 million. ‘Cleveland Heights isn’t losing any students…. They are just losing money.'”  Fleeter continues: “If this doesn’t get unwound, I think it is significant enough in terms of the impact on the money schools get to undermine any new funding formula.”

The battle about vouchers in Wisconsin has significant elements in common with Ohio’s voucher fight. But Ohio is an all-Republican state—House, Senate, Governor—while Wisconsin now has a  Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who, as the former Superintendent of Public Instruction, deeply understands the funding crisis in the state’s public schools. Despite the Republican Wisconsin Legislature’s antagonism to Evers’ proposals, he promises to present the public with the fiscal realities for public schools posed by his state’s ever expanding school vouchers.

In a recent interview with the Wisconsin Examiner, Evers explains how he plans to reframe the voucher issue to present the fiscal impact of privatized vouchers on Wisconsin’s public schools: “Asked about the problem of draining funds from already-strapped public schools, he starts with a no-brainer—the effort to inform taxpayers exactly how much they are paying for the voucher expansion, just as public-school funding and other services are broken out on property-tax bills. ‘I certainly support any legislation to make it more transparent… I mean, people should know where their tax dollars are going.'” “For the last several years, he points out, a lot of the kids who are getting school vouchers are those who were already in private school. ‘So it’s less of a choice and more about subsidizing a separate system… Now we need to have a discussion about that…. whether the public at large agrees that we should be subsidizing parochial education…  That’s never been asked… It’s always been asked, ‘Should people have the opportunity to have the same choice that wealthier people do?’ That’s a reasonable thing to discuss.  But if the discussion is, should we subsidize private education? Is that right? That’s never been discussed. Never. We should talk about that.'”

What is rarely mentioned in the voucher debates is that no state legislature creating a voucher program has added a new tax to pay for it.  Instead the money always comes out of the coffers of the state education budget and, as in Ohio today, out of local school district budgets.

7 thoughts on “Vouchers: Should States Be Subsidizing Private Education at a Steep Cost to Public Schools?

  1. Welcome back….you’ve been missed.

    Some years ago as a outside consultant I was asked to support the development of a stragetic plan for the archdiocese of a large urban center. Enrollment of the archdiocesan system was down and continuing to fall. In the eyes of the district officials this was a result of the availability of the cost-free option to the public schools offered by the growing charter movement. They saw the introduction of vouchers from the perspective of the survival of their own system. None of the conversations involved the impact on the system of public schools. That wasn’t their concern. They were much too close to the issue to be able to entertain an examination of the bigger picture.

    Your inclusion of the thinking of Mr. Evers… “Now we need to have a discussion about that…. whether the public at large agrees that we should be subsidizing parochial education… That’s never been asked…” is spot on. We cannot continue to waste human capital trying to make the wrong solution better. As Mr Evers states, it’s time to have a discussion about what is the “right thing”.

  2. Thank you for this, Jan. It’s no doubt hard to entice interest right now, with minds bent on the impeachment and the Iran situation, but I’m thankful that you keep trying. The Florida governor’s statement almost unbelievable, but it reveals the disregard for public good.

  3. Let’s see, children who go off to private schools with voucher in hand do not do as well academically as their public schools counterparts. Taking large fistfuls of cash away from the public schools will negatively impact the students’ academic progress there. It seems as if all our kids will suffer educationally from the Republicans on-going effort to wage war on the public schools, but they know that the less educated people are, the more they will support Republicans in the voting booths. Ah-ha! So that’s their motive! Thanks, as always, Jan for reporting on this even though it is maddening to see what is happening across this nation to our children and schools.

  4. Thank you for making sense of this voucher mess, especially the EdChoice scholarships and schools that are now designated EdChoice Schools because they fail to pass muster on the state’s absurd criteria focused on the equally absurd A-F grading scheme and long-discredited value added measures. The influence of the Thomas Fordham institute in shoveling this program into existence is real and continuing in a series of opeds in Ohio papers. A recent. one in Cincinnati was written by a person who has never taught, praised the A-F report cards, and attacked the Ohio Education Association for well placed criticism of the report cards and voucher expansions.
    My analysis of the Cincinnati EdChoice schools and authorized recipients of the EdChoice scholarships show that there are only six non-sectarian schools available for choice, three of these pre-school/child care centers. The majority of choices available are for Catholic schools followed by Christian schools several of these for specific denominations. There are three options for Jewish schools, one also a preschool.
    There is not much discussion of the potential windfall to religious schools or the fact that all of these choices are less than meets eye with respect to guarantees of special education, a tuition cost that the voucher actually covers, and more. In Cincinnati, any choice for a high school student leads only to a Catholic high school. I have not yet looked at the tuition these schools charge.

  5. Pingback: Ohio: Should States Subsidize Private and Religious Education by Subtracting Money from Public Schools? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  6. Pingback: Public School Funding: In Too Many States, It’s All about Subtracting and More Subtracting | janresseger

  7. Pingback: EdChoice Voucher Negotiations Break Down in Ohio: Four Questions Must Be Addressed in 60-Day Delay | janresseger

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