When you notice a particular educational trend moving across state legislatures, it is useful to investigate who’s behind the policy and who is making it so difficult to mount effective opposition. On Tuesday, this blog covered some of the far-right advocacy groups pressuring Ohio’s supermajority Republican legislature to pass House Bill 290, the Backpack Bill, which would bring a universal Education Savings Account (ESA) school voucher program to the state. Kathryn Joyce’s research for SALON demonstrates that the effort to pass a wave of universal ESA voucher bills is much broader than the particular groups working in Ohio.
Profiling a strategic effort by the Heritage Foundation to drive ESA vouchers through a number of state legislatures, Joyce describes the Heritage Foundation’s new Education Freedom Report Card which rates the states in four categories: “In the category of education choice, Heritage’s primary focus is on education savings accounts (ESAs), a form of school voucher that allows parents to opt out of public schools and use a set amount of state funding (sometimes delivered via debit card) on almost any educational expenses they see fit. ESAs can be used towards charter schools, private schools, parochial schools and low-cost (and typically low-quality) ‘voucher schools,’ as well as online schools, homeschooling expenses, unregulated ‘microschools’ (where a group of parents pool resources to hire a private teacher) or tutoring.”
“In terms of regulatory freedom, Heritage weighs whether states enforce ‘overburdensome’ regulations… The chief concern here appears to be (weakening) teacher certification credentials…. In the third category, transparency, the report rewards states that have ‘strong anti-critical race theory’ laws, high rates of engagement by groups like Parents Defending Education… and laws requiring school districts to provide exhaustive public access to any student curricula or educational materials… Lastly, in terms of spending, the report compares per-pupil (public school) spending not just to learning outcomes but also to matters like the future tax burden created by teacher pensions.”
In states whose legislatures are considering universal Education Savings Account bills like Ohio’s HB 290 Backpack Bill, legislators are receiving lots of help from far-right organizations pumping out “model legislation” that can be adapted to the needs of any state legislature. Joyce points out that the Heritage Foundation’s new report includes “a section containing model legislation written by the Goldwater Institute, the libertarian law firm, Institute for Justice, and (from) the Heritage Foundation itself, covering more ‘anti-CRT’ proposals, more requirements for schools to publicize their training materials for students and staff, and more or bigger ESA voucher programs.” You will remember that Tuesday’s blog post on Ohio quoted the Ohio Capital Journal’s Zurie Pope reporting that Ohio legislators sponsoring the Ohio House Bill 290, have received guidance from the Ohio Center for Christian Virtue, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), EdChoice (the former Friedman Foundation for EdChoice), and Heritage Action.
The top scorers on the Heritage Foundation’s Education Freedom Report Card are Florida with the top ranking and Arizona coming in second. Kathryn Joyce publishes comments from public education supporters in both states. In Florida, Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association notes that Florida ranks 45th in the United states in average per-student public school funding. He comments: “In their report, it seems like the states that fund their (public school) students at a higher level have a worse ranking than those who invest less in their children… the Heritage Foundation celebrating the rankings of how well you underfund public schools, how well you dismantle public schools.”
In Arizona, Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona, “which is currently leading a citizen ballot referendum against the state’s new universal ESA Law,” said “The fact that the Heritage Foundation ranks Arizona second in the country, when our (public) schools are funded nearly last in the nation, only underscores the depraved lens with which they view the world… Heritage boasting about realizing Milton Friedman’s dream reveals the agenda—to abolish public schools and put every child on a voucher….”
States whose legislatures have enacted Education Savings Account vouchers to date include Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Indiana, and Missouri. ESA programs were passed but later found unconstitutional in Nevada and Kentucky under the provisions of their state constitutions.
Ohio is not the only state where politicians are currently being pressed by far right advocates to adopt one of the model ESA bills that are available to anyone who wants one.
For example, for the Wisconsin Examiner, Ruth Conniff reports that education policy has become a huge issue of contention between “Republican candidate Tim Michels, Donald Trump’s choice for governor of Wisconsin, who is challenging incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, the former state schools superintendent, this fall.” Evers has managed to hold off the school privatizers in both houses of Wisconsin’s Republican-dominated state legislature for the past four years. Last week, Conniff explained: “A group of heavy hitters in Wisconsin politics announced Thursday that they are forming a coalition to push for universal school choice and ‘parents’ rights.’ The group, which calls itself the Wisconsin Coalition for Education Freedom, includes Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, the American Federation for Children, School Choice Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty… Michels and Evers are far apart on a lot of issues, from abortion to immigration to how the state runs elections, but one of the most profound impacts of the Wisconsin governor’s race will be the way it shapes the future of education. Michels’ education blueprint calls for an immediate, statewide expansion of Wisconsin’s school choice program… Michels said, ‘I will introduce universal school choice in my first budget in 2023… Among the other goals of the Wisconsin Coalition for Education Freedom is a ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ which would encourage lawsuits against school districts that don’t take direction from parents on these issues.”
Conniff concludes: “But beyond these flashy culture-war issues is a steady march toward a privatized education system that is on its way to bankrupting Wisconsin’s once-great public schools.”