There is sadly no mystery about the damage befalling public schools when private school tuition vouchers are expanded: Vouchers suck millions of essential dollars out of state and local public school budgets. Usually state legislatures start with a small program and then, several years later, explode the number of students eligible and the size of each voucher. Even though we know that aggregate standardized test scores reflect primarily a school district’s economic level and are a flawed measure of school quality, voucher proponents regularly market their new product as an escape for the poorest children from so-called “failing” schools.
Vouchers originally started in two of the nation’s school districts that serve concentrations of poor children: Milwaukee and Cleveland. But in 2021, we are watching a new phase of nationwide growth and expansion of vouchers.
In 2017, economist Gordon Lafer explained: “From 2011 to 2015, eighteen states established some form of voucher program. Vouchers are typically introduced as a limited, targeted intervention aimed at helping the neediest families but then expanded gradually to cover the general population. The country’s oldest voucher program was established in Milwaukee in 1990 and was restricted to poor children in failing schools and capped at a limited number of participants. In 2011, Governor Walker removed the cap, raised the income eligibility threshold, and expanded the program to include students in suburban counties. In 2013 the program was expanded yet again, this time to cover the entire state. Indiana and Ohio were the first two states to establish voucher programs that are available statewide and not limited to failing or underperforming schools. While both programs have income eligibility requirements, they are quite generous; in Indiana, nearly two-thirds of the state’s students qualify.” (Gordon Lafer, The One Percent Solution, pp. 132-133)
Education historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire report on the recent upswing of voucher legislation: “When given the opportunity to vote on sending public money to private schools, voters have always responded with an emphatic thumbs down… (T)raditional voucher programs have come roaring back in recent years, expanding dramatically in states like Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio. Unlike the small-scale voucher programs of the 1990s, which came clad in the rhetoric of social justice, the most recent incarnations are targeted at more affluent families whose children have never attended public schools….” (Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 77)
Right now, probably because of model bills from the American Legislative Exchange Council and persistent advocacy from groups defined by their support for voucher expansion—Betsy DeVos’s American Federation of Children, EdChoice (begun as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice by Milton Friedman in 1955), the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and State Policy Network member organizations—many state legislatures are considering bills to start voucher programs or expand already existing state vouchers. Here are four examples.
In late March, West Virginia’s Governor Jim Justice signed into law the nation’s largest voucher program—this time in the form of education savings accounts that give parents wide latitude about where they can spend state tax dollars. The Charleston Gazette-Mail‘s Ryan Quinn explains: “Programs in other states are limited to low-income, special-needs or other subsets of students, or have caps on the number of recipients in general. But West Virginia’s program will be open to all K-12 students, including by offering public money to families who already don’t use the public schools. Effective beginning in the 2022-23 school year, families who withdraw their children from public schools can receive a currently estimated $4,600 per-student, per-year for private-and home-schooling expenses. Families also may receive the money for newly school-aged children whom they never want to go to public schools. Republican supermajorities passed this legislation… without a single Democrat vote… Parents could use these vouchers for a nearly unlimited list of educational expenses, including online education programs, tutoring, books, and private schooling, whether religious or secular… The legislation… has a trigger that will automatically be pulled if participation in the program isn’t above 5% of the statewide public school enrollment within the program’s first two years. If that’s the case, then, starting July 1, 2026, parents of all current nonpublic school children will be able to get the vouchers.”
In Wisconsin, the state with the oldest voucher program—already expanded multiple times from the original Milwaukee voucher program—another statewide voucher increase is part of the current state budget debate. The Wisconsin Examiner‘s Ruth Conniff explains the history and the current debate: “In the 2019-20 school year, the cost for all local property taxpayers throughout the state to cover the combined costs of the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program and the Racine Parental Choice Program was $95,565,468.99. The special needs voucher program—the state’s other big private school voucher program—cost local property taxpayers $13,029,268.15. So last year local property taxpayers in Wisconsin spent about $108.6 million altogether on private school vouchers… All in all, statewide, local taxpayers have gone from spending about $21 million on private school vouchers in 2015-16 to spending about $140 million on private schools in 2020-21. And that’s just the cost for local property taxpayers… Wisconsin’s expanding private school choice programs are slated for more expansion in the state budget under a Republican plan passed by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee…. (T)he Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that the Special Needs Scholarship Program will more than double in size over the next two years, from the current $17 million to more than $440 million. At the same time, Republicans’ budget proposal reduces per-pupil aid for public school students by $9.4 million.”
Conniff continues: “Private school vouchers are among the handful of items in the state budget that are labeled ‘sum sufficient.’ That is, funding is not limited. While there are estimated costs for sum sufficient items in the budget, their costs can exceed those estimates… In his budget proposal, Gov. Tony Evers tried to make special education funding for public schools a sum sufficient appropriation. Republicans in the Legislature stripped out that provision. They also threw out Evers’ proposal to cap enrollment in the choice and special needs voucher program at 2021-22 levels. (In the last budget, they also stripped out Evers’ proposal to cut the cost of private school vouchers on homeowners’ property tax bills).”
In Montana, where remote small towns are in many cases too small to accommodate school choice at all, vouchers were just expanded. The editorial board of The Missoulian reports on a new tuition tax credit voucher program just passed by the legislature and signed by the governor: “One bill… took a $150 tax credit for donations to school scholarships… and inflated it to a shocking $200,000. The sheer size of the credit makes its intent unmistakable: to take public tax dollars from all Montanans, and use them to financially support private schools… It is expected to drain $4.6 million from the general fund by Fiscal Year 2025. In other words, this bill will cost Montana taxpayers an estimated $4.6 million. And this money coming from public pockets will fund the educational choices made by private individuals. Individuals who are most certainly wealthier than the average Montanans… The final version also places a $2 million cap on the program in 2023, with the possibility of raising that cap later on if the amount of the donations approaches or exceeds the limit.”
In North Carolina the legislature is currently considering voucher expansion. Just last week, according to the editorial board of the Raleigh News & Observer, “(S)tate Senate Republicans passed a bill that will increase the current $4,200 voucher cap by $1,650 and raise the level of income eligibility as well. Under Senate Bill 671, a family of four would qualify with an income as high as $85,794. The median income for a family of four in North Carolina is $87,505.” The bill passed the North Carolina Senate with only one Democrat along with strong Republican support. The newspaper’s editorial board predicts that this year in North Carolina, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper will veto the bill.
In Schoolhouse Burning, his strongly pro-public education book published last fall, constitutional scholar Derek Black concludes with what ought to become bedrock principles if we are to protect the institution of public education in America: “(S)tates should prohibit all private school vouchers and tax credits unless they are willing to impose rules and regulations that ensure the programs do not counteract the democratic values that underlie public education. Absent rules that reinforce those values, government has no more interest in funding private education than it does in funding oversized vehicles with poor fuel efficiency for every family that wants one.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 255)