This year there are bills in state legislatures all over the country to start up or expand school vouchers—money awarded out of state education budgets to cover private school tuition. In some cases the bills are for Education Savings Accounts that would give parents something like a credit card for a limited amount of tax money they could spend on any education services in lieu of enrolling their children in public schools.
For NPR’s State Impact Oklahoma, Robby Korth reports that just this week, the Oklahoma Legislature defeated a bill prioritized by Governor Kevin Stitt—the Oklahoma Empowerment Act, which would have started up an Education Savings Account voucher program with money for private school tuition as well as educational supplies for homeschooling. Stitt and Senate leader Greg Treat promise, however, they will be back, maybe by trying to slip the program into the fine print of a future, several-thousand-page state budget.
Last week Erin Einhorn of NBC News consulted EdChoice, formerly the Rose and Milton Friedman Foundation for EdChoice, for an accurate count of current state-by-state legislation: “Seventy-four measures have been introduced in state legislatures this year to create or expand voucher programs, said Robert Enlow, the president and CEO of EdChoice, a national organization that supports vouchers and other alternatives to traditional schools. And supporters of ballot referendums are gathering signatures in at least four states. The new efforts come on top of the 22 states that already added or expanded vouchers last year—a ‘ginormous’ year for the programs, Enlow said.”
One of those ballot initiatives, for an education savings account program in Michigan, is being spearheaded by none other than Betsy DeVos. Einhorn reports: “A ballot referendum that DeVos is backing in Michigan, with nearly $400,000 from her family and an organization she supports, would give parents up to about $8,000 per child per year for tuition, tutoring or expenses like school supplies.” DeVos calls the campaign for this referendum the Let MI Kids Learn Campaign. Fortunately public school parents and supporters are pushing back with a campaign to oppose DeVos’s efforts: Don’t Sign.
Einhorn emphasizes the dogged determination of wealth-backed school privatizers as one cause for the recent upsurge in proposed legislation and ballot initiatives, but she also interviews a professor of education policy who believes that right now voucher support may have been bolstered by COVID fatigue and ugly far-right political attacks on the public sector: “In the past, the debate over vouchers ‘was more about school quality’ and the free market principle that parents exercising educational choice would force schools to compete and improve, said Josh Cowen, an education policy professor at Michigan State University. ‘Now’, he said, ‘with studies finding that vouchers have not significantly improved school quality, it’s also about ‘creating a narrative that public schools are teaching our children things that we—whatever ‘we’ means—collectively disagree with or are skeptical about.’ The language supporting vouchers today is infused with ‘deep state hostility,’ Cowen said. ‘The government wants to impose a certain kind of education on you and your children.’ That dynamic is playing out in states including South Carolina, where an education savings account bill dubbed the Put Parents in Charge Act would create the state’s first voucher program, and Idaho where Gov. Brad Little signed off on a $50 million ‘Empowering Parents’ program this month.”
While the bills and referendums for voucher expansion across the states differ, Einhorn quotes the Education Law Center’s Jessica Levin—who leads Public Funds Public Schools a pro-public school/ anti-voucher project of the Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Levin describes the similarity of much of the legislation from state to state: “Many have language similar to model legislation put out by the American Legislative Exchange Council and other conservative groups… It’s a very aggressive and well-funded push… They are constantly shape-shifting or changing tactics.”
There are several brief accessible resources to support advocacy against the startup or expansion of vouchers. Levin’s project, Public Funds Public Schools, produces easily downloadable fact sheets to assist advocates trying to push back against state bills or referendums to launch or expand school vouchers and education savings accounts. The first, Research Shows Private School Vouchers Don’t Work for Students and Harm Public Schools, summarizes research showing that, “For many years, studies of voucher programs across the country have found no improvement in student achievement… Many of the rights and protections that apply to students in public schools do not apply to students using vouchers to attend private schools. In fact, students may face discrimination when they try to enroll in a private school or after they are admitted.” In fact, vouchers have been shown to exacerbate school segregation.
Another Public Funds Public Schools fact sheet documents The Myth of Cost Savings from Private School Vouchers. In fact, “vouchers are more expensive than public schooling… Vouchers (tend to) subsidize private education for students would not otherwise have attended public schools” and who were never enrolled in the public schools in the first place. “Voucher programs concentrate students who require increased resources in public schools.” The costs for special programming—English language learners and disabled students, for example—must then be covered from public school budgets. Finally, “voucher programs do not change fixed costs in public schools”—costs for services the public school district is required to provide even if some students leave for private schools.
The Network For Public Education provides a pointed fact sheet on the danger of Education Savings Account vouchers (ESAs), Do Education Savings Accounts Lead to Better Results for Families?: “ESAs provide a huge loophole for unaccountable use of public money… Most of these programs release their funds to parents in exchange for the parents agreeing to forego their right to public education… A state auditor’s office in Arizona identified more than $102,000 in misspending on education savings account money in just a five-month period, including… parents who did not submit required quarterly expense reports and parents who purchased prohibited items… ESAs are not truly savings accounts. They give parents ways to spend someone else’s—the taxpayers’— money…. Worst of all, they place students in unaccountable systems, where many will be under-educated.”
The Public Funds Public Schools website catalogues research reports to help advocates accurately correct myths and misconceptions spread by the promoters of vouchers. And the website has a bill tracker where advocates can research the status of bills which have been introduced in any of the 50 state legislatures to start up or expand vouchers.
It is worth paying close attention to what is happening in your state. Here in Ohio, where I live, over 100 school districts have filed a lawsuit against the state’s huge and growing EdChoice voucher program. In their lawsuit, these school districts document exactly how, when the legislature quietly expanded EdChoice vouchers in last summer’s state budget, the cost of the voucher expansion subsequently blocked the legislature’s capacity fully to implement a new public school funding plan legislators passed in the same budget bill:
“Because public funds are finite, funding EdChoice Program Vouchers out of the foundation funding designated for public school districts inevitably depletes the resources designated by the legislature for educating Ohio’s public school students. H.B. 110 (the state budget bill) initially incorporated the salient features of the …Fair School Funding Plan …. However, due to the ballooning effects of the EdChoice program, the enacted version of H.B. 110 funded only up to one-third of the increases required by the proposed Fair School Funding Plan over the next two fiscal years.” “(T)he Fair School Funding Plan was not fully funded due to the ballooning costs of the EdChoice Program. Only 16.67% of the Fair School Funding Plan is being funded through Fiscal Year 2022 and 33% of the Fair School Funding Plan will be funded through Fiscal Year 2023, as specifically delineated in H.B. 110. This means the General Assembly will meet only a fraction of its constitutional obligation, by the standards it has adopted, to provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools for Fiscal Year 2022.”
Public school parents, teachers and school districts are realizing that protecting public schooling has become a long and ongoing fight. Betsy Devos and her friends have demonstrated a decades-long commitment to destroying public education, and they are not going to quit anytime soon.