Lots of New Voucher Proposals Popping Up in State Legislatures: Did Betsy DeVos Leave a Legacy?

Despite that Trump’s privatizer-in-chief, Betsy DeVos has left Washington, D.C. and that President Biden has focused on supporting neighborhood public schools and finally getting them open full time after months of COVID-19 disruption, there is growing concern about the number of bills currently in state legislatures to expand vouchers of all kinds—plain old private school tuition vouchers, tuition tax credit vouchers, and education savings accounts.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reports that the Network for Public Education has tracked bills for new voucher programs or expansions of vouchers in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire.  Strauss reminds us that Betsy DeVos’s skewed understanding of the meaning of public education has not disappeared from the fifty statehouses: “DeVos and her allies, especially Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), publicly called for a definition that essentially said: If public dollars are used for any kind of schooling that makes it public education—even if the public has no say in how a school operates.”  She quotes DeSantis: “Look, if it’s public dollars, it’s public education.”

Why have so many voucher bills been introduced in state legislatures right now? The Huffington Post‘s senior education reporter Rebecca Klein explains: “In the few weeks of 2021, state legislators have introduced a wave of new bills designed to expand or create new voucher, tax credit and education savings programs.  While these programs are often controversial—eliciting staunch opposition from public school groups and teachers unions—advocates say they have seen new momentum after a wave of Republican wins in statehouses and a pandemic that has forced millions of schoolchildren to learn from home.  So far, new legislation related to private school choice has been introduced in over 15 states during 2021.”

After exploring the details of some of the state legislative proposals to expand school privatization, Jeff Bryant considers why they are appearing now: “What’s telling about these bills is that proponents of school privatization clearly see the need to quickly ram through their proposals because popular opinion is not necessarily on their side. Whenever school choice proposals are subjected to popular vote, they generally fare poorly.” But, continues Bryant, “School choice proponents also see the crisis caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to advance their cause.  Many parents are beyond distraught with their children’s situation. Also, in communities with high rates of viral spread, which is most of America, state and local governments have generally not invested in the personnel and resources that are essential to safely reopen schools for in-person learning. Politicians and school choice advocates, many of whom are also complicit in the lack of investment in local schools, see this systemic failure as their chance to vastly expand taxpayer funding for privately operated schools… It’s true the pandemic is driving great numbers of parents to abandon public schools to search for other providers, such as for-profit online charter companies, private schools, brick-and-mortar charter schools, and privately operated learning pods and microschools.”

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa adds: “With millions of children still shut out of closed school buildings due to the coronavirus pandemic, many parents have looked for months for different options to provide an education for their children. In the early weeks of 2021, lawmakers in nearly a third of the states have responded with bills intended to establish or expand on things like tax-credit-scholarships and education savings accounts.”

Howver, Ujifusa wonders: “Is it a groundswell or a mirage?… (F)ans of school choice… see a pretty straightforward dynamic that will help their issue. In addition to traditional legislative measures, the interest in learning pods—which are informal groups set up by parents to help groups of students during school building closures—could be another source of energy for the movement… But the extent to which many families might simply wish for a return to normalcy and for their children to go back to their prior schools, extracurricular activities, and social networks, could also play a big role in how much K-12 education choice grows in the pandemic’s wake.”

Klein Quotes Catherine Dunn of the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, which is part of Public Funds Public Schools, a coalition of organizations opposed to the privatization of public education “We’re not seeing a lot of bipartisan support for the proposals we’re tracking — it’s a result of a lot of the gains from Republicans (in state legislatures) who are pushing these through.”

And it is not as though these bills are all sailing through without controversy. In Depth New Hampshire‘s Garry Rayno describes a confrontational hearing before the New Hampshire House Education Committee where the legislators debated “education freedom accounts” neo-vouchers designed to give parents freedom to use state tax dollars to choose from an array of in and out of school services the parents believe are educational: “A multi-hour public hearing before the House Education Committee drew testimony from as far away as Arizona and as close as Manchester as both sides turned out in force to make their case for or against House Bill 20, a priority of the Republican legislative leadership.  3,198 people signed in to oppose HB 20 while 600 people signed in support and five signed in as neutral. Due to high turn out the hearing was recessed and will resume next Thursday, February 11.”

Proponents of vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts define school choice as individual freedom from government and they conceptualize parents as consumers in a marketplace.  What they never mention is the cost to the public. How much money do the vouchers cost?  Where will the money come from?  When a few students leave and carry away the voucher, what is the cost to the students in the public schools?

At the end of January, Public Funds Public Schools, the collaboration of the Education Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, released a fact sheet to clarify the financial loss to public schools when legislatures establish voucher programs.  Here is some of what they would caution state legislatures considering starting up or expanding voucher programs:

“Voucher programs concentrate students who require increased resources in the public schools.  Because private schools can refuse to admit or provide adequate services for students with disabilities, English learners, and others who may require increased resources for an equitable education, these students are more frequently educated in public schools.  Private schools participating in voucher programs may also ‘counsel out’ or expel students they deem ‘high cost.'”

 “Pubic schools, which serve the vast majority of students, have substantial ‘fixed costs.’  Because students who participate in voucher programs exit their pubic school districts from different schools, grade levels and classrooms, districts are not able to proportionally reduce facilities, staff, programs, and other fixed costs to fully offset the loss of funding that is diverted to voucher programs.”

Finally: “Voucher programs subsidize private education for students who would not otherwise have attended public school.  It is not true that voucher programs simply shift funds that would have been spent on public school student to pay for their private education.  When states establish private school voucher programs, families already paying for or planning to use private education often participate… It is inaccurate to assume that students receiving a voucher switched from public to private education.”

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