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.”

DeVos Privatization Schemes Are Blocked by Courts and Likely to Be Further Blocked by Congress

Betsy DeVos, a lifelong supporter of private and religious schools and the expansion of tax-funded tuition vouchers for private schools, has pursued the privatization of public education throughout her tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education. In recent months DeVos devised a way to divert to private schools some of the funding Congress appropriated for public school CARES Act relief, and this month DeVos has persisted by working with Sen. Ted Cruz to insert her $5 billion Education Freedom Scholarship tuition tax credit program into a new Senate coronavirus relief package.

Famous for disdaining public institutions, DeVos once declared: “Government really sucks.”  Everyone has worried for over three years that Betsy DeVos might succeed in radically expanding school privatization from her perch in the Trump administration, but, despite all the rhetoric, she hasn’t succeeded.  Now her CARES Act initiative has been struck down, and her tuition tax credit scheme is headed nowhere.

Court Permanently Blocks DeVos CARES Act Distribution Favoring Private Schools

In July, Betsy DeVos imposed a binding rule to favor distribution of a significant portion of last spring’s CARES Act relief money to private schools at the expense of the public schools serving the nation’s poorest children.  Last Friday, in NAACP v. DeVos, the third court decision on DeVos’s CARES Act rule in recent weeks, a federal judge permanently blocked DeVos’s plan.

POLITICO’s Michael Stratford explains: “U.S District Judge Dabney Friedrich, an appointee of President Donald Trump, ruled that DeVos ran afoul of the CARES Act when she required public schools to send a greater share of pandemic assistance to private school students than is typically required under federal law.  The judge sided with the NAACP, which had brought the legal challenge against DeVos’ policy, criticizing it as a ploy to divert emergency aid away from needy public schools toward more affluent private-school students.  Several other judges had already preliminarily blocked DeVos’ rule in certain states, but Judge Friedrich’s ruling—which is final—goes further in striking down the entire rule as illegal.  The ruling will apply nationwide.”

In the statutory language of the CARES Act, Congress directed that CARES Act public education relief be distributed in accordance with the method of the Title I Formula, which awards federal funds to supplement educational programming in public school districts serving concentrations of low-income children. Public school districts receiving Title I dollars are also expected to provide Title I services to impoverished students attending the private schools located within their district boundaries. In the binding guidance she imposed in July, DeVos demanded that per-pupil CARES Act relief for private schools be based on each private school’s full enrollment, not merely on the number of the private school students who qualify for additional services because their families are living below 185 percent of the federal poverty line.

Public Funds Public Schools, a coalition including the law firm of Munger Tolles & Olson L.L.P., the Education Law Center, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, represented the plaintiffs in NAACP v. DeVosPublic Funds Public Schools commented on the ruling: “The court’s ruling grants a nationwide vacatur of the rule, bringing much-needed certainty to public schools across the country that they will have the full amount of CARES Act funds to which they are entitled.”

Along with the NAACP, additional plaintiffs included public school parents from Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Nevada, Mississippi, Alabama, and Washington, DC, as well as Broward County Public Schools in Florida, the DeKalb County School District in Georgia, the Denver County School District in Colorado, the Pasadena Unified School District in California, and Stamford Public Schools in Connecticut.

With Sen. Ted Cruz, DeVos Again Pushes for $5 Billion Federal Tuition Tax Credit Program

DeVos’s favorite school privatization scheme—a federal tuition tax credit voucher program DeVos has called “Education Freedom Scholarships” and which she has unsuccessfully tried to insert every year into the federal budget—has now been proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz as part of a new, very meager Senate Republican coronavirus relief bill. Cruz’s idea is already so controversial that it is holding up negotiations on the bill.  You will remember that the House passed the HEROES Act to lay down its bid for $3 trillion in further relief last May 15. The U.S. Senate has not yet agreed to a plan.

On Sunday, the Washington Post‘s Erica Werner explained: “Talks on additional coronavirus relief legislation broke down in August and have remained stalled.  Lawmakers will return to the Capitol on Tuesday (September 8) and leaders in both parties say they hope to reach agreement on a new coronavirus relief bill. But they remain far apart, and it’s unclear whether a deal will be possible. Democrats are unwilling to agree to legislation that spends less than $2 trillion, while Republicans say that figure is too high. Senate GOP leaders have been hoping to try advancing a slimmed-down bill costing about $500 billion, but they’ve struggled to reach agreement even on that. The latest hang-up involves a push by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for a school-choice provision opposed by some fellow Republicans.”

CNN reporters Manu Raju. Phil Mattingly and Ted Barrett describe Cruz’s latest push for the privatization of education: “Cruz’s proposal would essentially provide reimbursement–in full–for donations to state-based nonprofit scholarship funds that help families with tuition and other education expenses for private K-12 schooling.”

No one believes the relief package into which Cruz seeks to insert his tuition tax credits is serious legislation headed toward enactment.  The Washington Post‘s Erica Werner and Laura Meckler explain: “The $5 billion tax credit proposal has long been championed by DeVos, and President Trump has offered his support for school choice as part of his reelection campaign. Now the measure is being pushed behind the scenes by Sen. Ted Cruz…. But his move is opposed by a number of other members of the Senate Republican conference—some on the merits, others for strategic reasons.  They will need to resolve the impasse to finalize the legislation.  The bill is meant to be a negotiating tool with Democrats, though a previous measure with a similar goal went nowhere last month.  Senate Republicans are seeking to pass a targeted bill as a way of countering a bill recently passed by House Democrats that sought to boost funding for the U.S. Postal Service.”

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi has staunchly stood behind the need for a much more generous COVID-19 relief package than the Senate has been willing to consider. Pelosi has insisted, for example, on funding significant relief for the unemployed and at the same time alleviating a deepening fiscal crisis in state and local governments. It is impossible to believe the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives will ever buy into the skinniest possible Senate proposal that not only leaves out desperately needed coronavirus relief but also privatizes public education. Although Betsy DeVos is known for her persistent devotion to school choice, the U.S. House has been equally persistent in rejecting DeVos’s school privatization overtures.