State Voucher Plans Grow Despite DeVos’s Failure to Enact a Federal Program

Earlier this week, Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal education reporter, described her recent interview with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: “U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has spent decades advocating for private school vouchers and charter schools, came to Washington with one item at the top of her agenda: to push for a new federal school choice initiative. Her vision is running into trouble on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers in both chambers have failed to fund either of the school choice proposals in the president’s budget. And it’s looking less and less likely that the White House will push to include a federal tax credit scholarship program in a sweeping tax overhaul package that’s slated to be unveiled soon. So where does that leave the secretary? She’s not giving up, she said in a wide-ranging interview with Education Week….”

Klein reports that DeVos is merely “waiting for the right time” to launch her federal school choice initiative, but there is another reason DeVos can be complacent about a federal expansion of some sort of school vouchers: Voucher programs are quietly growing in many states—either as statehouses pass new legislation or as legislatures expand existing voucher provisions and budget more money for such programs at the expense of public school budgets. DeVos knows she can count on the friends with whom she has collaborated for decades—the libertarian lobbying groups, Americans for Prosperity, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the matchmaker between its state legislative members and its corporate and lobbyist members who continue to collaborate on school privatization bills—vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts—all represented among the model bills ALEC has on the shelf ready to be introduced into any state legislature.

Here is economist Gordon Lafer, from his excellent book, The One Percent Solution, looking at the bills whose introduction he has tracked across America’s state legislatures: “When we examine this full range of legislation, certain things come into focus that are impossible to see when analyzing any particular bill. For starters, there is the sheer similarity of the legislation—nearly identical bills introduced in cookie-cutter fashion in states across the country. This highlights the extent to which state politics has become nationalized, with different states’ legislation originating from a common source in national advocacy organizations.” (p. 3) “For three decades, beginning in the Reagan administration, authority over social and economic policy and programs has steadily moved from the federal to state governments. Unemployment insurance, welfare, food stamps, transportation, education, and health care spending rely largely on federal spending, but the states establish the level and conditions of support that federal funding provides… At the same time, many of the factors that strengthen corporate political influence are magnified in the states.  First, far fewer people pay attention to state government, implying wider latitude for well-funded organized interests.” (p. 34)  These trends have been intensified by the corporate-driven rise of one-party dominated, all-red states—now 26, and the increase of tactics like making policy in the middle of the night or burying important programs in the fine print of omnibus legislation like state budgets, with neither adequate debate nor public hearings.

The most recent example of the expansion of vouchers in state policy is, of course, the “compromise” school funding plan passed at the end of August by the Illinois legislature and signed by Governor Bruce Rauner. This blog has extensively covered the Illinois budget crisis and the school funding crisis that surfaced this spring when the legislature developed a plan that would more equitably distribute state funding to local school districts. Rauner vetoed the plan because he said it was a bailout for the beleaguered Chicago Public Schools, despite that everyone except Rauner pretty much agreed it would be a fairer plan.  By the time Rauner called a special legislative session to develop a plan he would be willing to support, it became known that, at the suggestion of Cardinal Blase Cupich of  Chicago’s Archdiocese, Rauner had declared he would support more money for the public schools, as long as the legislature added a tuition tax credit school voucher program.

Here are Tina Sfondeles and Lauren FitzPatrick of the Chicago Sun-Times describing the Illinois school funding compromise which was intended originally to make the state’s distribution of education funding more equitable, but ended up extracting funding for private schools right out of the same education budget: “The legislation is intended to put new money for education into the state’s poorest and neediest districts—and to try to ease the state’s reliance on local property taxes to pay for schools. The system has enabled wealthier communities to pump more money into public education while poor districts fall further behind. But the compromise includes the controversial private school scholarship and tax-credit program…. The tax-credit program was backed by Rauner, Republicans and Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago. It would provide tax credits for anyone who donates to organizations that would create scholarship funds for low-and mid-income students attending private schools. At least for the next five years—when the measure will sunset—donors would get a credit for 75 cents on every dollar they give. Democrats estimated the program would provide scholarships for up to 6,000 students.”

But in other states, once established, such voucher programs never really have been phased out. Last December, Emma Brown of the Washington Post reported on the growth of Indiana’s voucher program: “Indiana’s legislature first approved a limited voucher program in 2011, capping it at 7,500 students in the first year and restricting it to children who had attended public schools for at least a year. ‘Public schools will get first shot at every child,’ then Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) said at the time. ‘If the public school delivers and succeeds, no one will seek to exercise this choice.’”  Mike Pence was elected governor in 2012, and, “Within months, Indiana lawmakers eliminated the requirement that children attend public school before receiving vouchers and lifted the cap on the number of recipients. The income cutoff was raised, and more middle-class families became eligible. When those changes took effect, an estimated 60 percent of all Indiana children were eligible for vouchers and the number of recipients jumped from 9,000 to more than 19,000 in one year.  The proportion of children who had never previously attended Indiana public schools also rose quickly.  By 2016, more than half of voucher recipients—52 percent—had never been in the state’s public school system.”

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reports on the growth over time of the nation’s oldest school voucher program, launched in Milwaukee for poor children in 1990. In the 1990-91 school year, the Milwaukee Voucher Program cost $734,000.  By the 2014-2015 school year, the state of Wisconsin was spending $212,000,000 on school vouchers.

The nation’s second oldest voucher program, begun for poor students in Cleveland, Ohio has also been expanded.  Policy Matters Ohio released a scathing report in June demonstrating that even as the state has continued to underfund public schools, it has never stopped digging deeper into the state education budget to expand private school tuition vouchers: “Despite traditional public schools struggling to recover funding since the recession, voucher program spending increased by 352 percent since 2008. Program eligibility has increased by adding programs that allow more students to use vouchers… Although most Ohioans are educated in public schools, since the 1990s state policymakers have steadily funneled resources to private schools through vouchers, despite evidence that public school students perform better…  Ohio has five voucher programs: Cleveland Scholarship Program… Educational Choice Program… Educational Choice Expansion… Autism Scholarship Program and Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program.  In Ohio, school funding follows the students, which means that for most voucher programs, the money is deducted from state aid that would have gone to a public school.”

With public policy on education centered primarily in 50 state legislatures, it is overwhelming to try to keep track of the bills that have been introduced and their status. The Education Law Center has recently launched a new Voucher Watch  initiative to help advocates keep track of what is happening with laws to expand vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts across the states: “Education Law Center (ELC), in partnership with the Los Angeles-based Munger, Tolles & Olson (MTO) law firm, has established a Voucher Watch initiative to track new voucher proposals and provide information and analysis on existing voucher laws. Voucher Watch is intended to inform and assist parents, teachers and advocates for public education in their efforts to oppose the establishment or expansion of vouchers in their states.” Voucher Watch frequently updates its description of school privatization bills and reports on each bill’s legislative status.