New Report: When Legislators Expand Vouchers, They Divert Dollars Desperately Needed in Public Schools

Politicians promoting publicly funded school vouchers to pay for private education tell us that increasing state spending on vouchers—whether old-fashioned private school tuition vouchers, tuition tax credit vouchers, or education savings account universal vouchers—won’t take money away from the public schools that serve the mass of American children. This is a case of pure political deception. Flat-out lying.

The Fiscal Consequences of Private School Vouchers, a new report from Public Funds, Public Schools—a project of the Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center—addresses what it costs states to fund vouchers for private schooling and specifically what it costs the public schools themselves as states siphon out money for the vouchers.  Its authors are Samuel E. Abrams, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and his colleague Steven J. Koutsavlis.

Abrams and Koutsavlis begin: “Over half the states and the District of Columbia have enacted some type of voucher program. This report explores how voucher programs and spending have evolved in seven states that have operated these programs long enough to reflect on their track records: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin… In each of these states, the number of vouchers distributed climbed sharply from 2008 to 2019… At the same time… these voucher states’ efforts to fund public schools—which serve a significant majority of students—have declined. The portion of state gross domestic product (GDP) allocated to funding primary and secondary public education in all of the states we reviewed decreased, despite the fact that public school enrollment generally increased over the same period.” (emphasis in the original)

The number of students taking publicly funded vouchers for private schooling has increased rapidly: “The number of students using vouchers in the fall of 2012 was 212,000.  By 2021, that number had topped 600,000. While that sum in a country with nearly 50 million students in public PK-12 schools is small, the trend is significant…. The programs are expensive to operate, with studies showing they typically cost more per student than public schools. And many of the nation’s public schools remain chronically underfunded although they serve the vast majority of the nation’s children.”

Although politicians who promote vouchers often say that educating students with vouchers is cheaper, Abrams and Koutsavlis show why this is a lie: “The claim that it costs less to educate students with private school vouchers than in public schools ignores numerous realities. Voucher programs shift key expenses to parents; often subsidize private tuition for families who would never have enrolled in public schools; do not dilute fixed costs for public education systems, and concentrate higher-need, more-costly-to-educate students in already underfunded public schools.”

And voucher programs send students to schools where their rights are not protected: “(D)ata show that voucher programs exacerbate racial segregation. Moreover, private schools accepting vouchers are not subject to many of the anti-discrimination laws that protect students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, and other vulnerable groups, who may—sometimes unknowingly—give up their rights when they move to private schools.”  Further: “Private schools participating in voucher programs are generally not subject to the same regulatory standards as public schools.”

The report describes the fiscal consequences of voucher expansion in each of the seven states, for example in Florida: “No state comes close to Florida in the allocation of public funds to private schools.”  Florida has a number of voucher programs; the authors focus on the three largest: “We focus here on the first three voucher programs—the McKay, Gardiner and Tax Credit Scholarship Programs.  In 2019, these served approximately 151,000 students.  This total represented 5.4 percent of the state’s 2.8 million PK-12 students.  In fiscal year 2008, total spending in Florida for its initial tax credit and conventional voucher programs amounted to $241,219,945. By fiscal year 2019, total spending for these two programs and the Gardiner ESA program had reached $996,257,636, an annual growth rate of 13.8 percent. While Florida increased its spending on these three programs by 313 percent from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2019, the state decreased its per-pupil funding for public education over this time period by 12 percent… This decline in per-pupil funding in Florida cannot be attributed to economic duress.  It coincided with a 3.4 percent annual growth rate in GDP for the state from 2008 to 2019…. In terms of educational effort, measured as the percentage of state GDP allocated to PK-12 funding, this decline shows Florida to be retreating significantly in its commitment to public education at the same time it substantially increased its funding of private schooling.”

In every one of the seven states, the report examines the rapidly growing investment of tax revenues into vouchers and the concurrent drop in public school spending.  Abrams and Koutsavlis conclude: “The pattern of education spending in these seven voucher states is unmistakable. Private school voucher programs are initially proposed as limited in size and scope, then grow as existing programs are expanded, and/or additional voucher programs are established.”

But as the vouchers grow, legislators’ fiscal support for public education drops: “As states transfer millions of dollars to private hands, there are fewer available state resources for projects that serve the public good, from mass transit to public parks, libraries, and schools.” And yet, “Voucher programs, even with significant expansion during the last one to two decades, still serve only a small percentage of the nation’s children.”


Americans for Prosperity in Ohio: What is the Koch-Funded Buckeye Blueprint’s Education Plan?

We ought to suspect that someone has been investing heavily to push school privatization in Ohio. Last summer our legislature passed a budget that radically expanded state funding for private school tuition vouchers, allocated more money for charter schools, made every one of the state’s 610 school districts eligible for charter school operators to open schools, and allocated so much money for school privatization and tax cuts that legislators felt they couldn’t pass a stand alone bill that would have established the full six-year phase in of the Cupp-Patterson public school funding plan.

I cannot name all of the far-right organizations investing in the promotion of school privatization in Ohio, but one new initiative, launched in February, is Americans for Prosperity-Ohio’s Buckeye Blueprint.

The Buckeye Blueprint, describes itself in overblown hyperbole as, “a new grassroots campaign that seeks to build a bolder and better state by bringing people together to build bottom-up movements around policy priorities at the state and local levels. This will be accomplished by empowering concerned citizens to participate in the legislative process by building greater awareness of critical legislative opportunities for change…. Americans for Prosperity-Ohio is driving long-term solutions to the country’s biggest problems.”

In Advancing Educational Opportunities for Everyone, the Buckeye Blueprint campaign announces the campaign’s education agenda—beginning with a celebration of the Ohio Legislature’s expansion of publicly funded private school tuition vouchers last summer: “Governor DeWine, Speaker Cupp, and, most notably, Senate President Huffman, deserve credit for steps taken in the most recent Budget that increased educational opportunity through vouchers.”

Advancing Educational Opportunities for Everyone also plugs Ohio’s Backpack Bill, HB 290, a bill being discussed in the legislature to establish a universal Education Savings Account voucher program that would give every Ohio family public dollars to choose a school or spend the public dollars on any so-called educational activity the family prefers including home schooling. The Buckeye Blueprint website explains: “Passage of universal Education Savings Accounts… would put more parents in a better position to make the best choices for their kids.” Americans for Prosperity-Ohio wants us to follow the lead of our neighbors, Indiana and West Virginia, by expanding all kinds of vouchers: “Hoosier & Mountaineer families are feeling the benefit of bold reform in the last 12 months while Buckeye families seeking opportunity are currently under attack in our courts.”

Glowing language frames an individualistic agenda that claims its purpose is to expand educational opportunity, but the buzzwords show that Americans for Prosperity-Ohio is not a bit concerned about the needs of our state’s 1.8 million students in the public schools. Instead the Buckeye Blueprint demands that Ohio’s citizens pressure the legislature to: “Fund students, not schools,” for the purpose of unlocking “each individual’s unique potential.” The Buckeye Blueprint prescribes that, as an alternative to a system of public schools, the Ohio Legislature should offer, “credit for learning, wherever it occurs; (provide) the freedom to enroll in a variety of courses inside and outside of a child’s school; (provide) funded accounts that can be used for a variety of educational uses; (and ensure) public schools of choice.”

The Buckeye Blueprint refers parents and education advocates to another website: Yes. Every Kid, where we can find the “yes. policy framework”: “Does this policy contribute to a diversity of solutions?” “Does this policy empower families to choose what works best?” “Does this policy allow students to customize their education?” “Does this policy ensure funding is attached to the student?”

To refute this sort of slick, individualist appeal, it is helpful to remember that public education is designed to balance our society’s obligation to meet the needs of each particular student with the public responsibility for maintaining a system that secures the rights of all of our state’s students. Public schools are not only publicly funded, but they are expected to be universally available and accountable to the public by law and through the oversight of locally elected school boards.

In Consumed, the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber explains precisely where campaigns like the Buckeye Blueprint go wrong in their individualist ideology and why school privatization will undermine our society and inevitably disadvantage the most vulnerable children:

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

For all the specific reasons our society would be worse off with the expansion of vouchers at the expense of public schools and would be even more damaged by a universal Education Savings Account program like Ohio’s proposed HB 290 Backpack Bill, we can turn to the resources at Public Funds Public Schools, a collaboration of the Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Public Funds Public Schools has posted a catalogue of research, gathered into eight categories:

  • Private School Vouchers Don’t Improve Student Achievement.
  • Private School Vouchers Divert Needed Funding from Public Schools.
  • Private School Voucher Programs Lack Accountability.
  • Absence of Oversight in Private School Voucher Programs Leads to Corruption and Waste.
  • Private School Vouchers Don’t Help Students with Disabilities.
  • Private School Vouchers Don’t Protect Against Discrimination.
  • Private School Vouchers Exacerbate Segregation.
  • Universal Private School Voucher Programs Don’t Work.

Public Funds Public Schools summarizes this research into several two-page fact sheets:

Benjamin Barber precisely defines how privatization damages a society. His words perfectly describe what it will mean if states like Ohio continue to expand, at public expense, private school tuition vouchers and Education Savings Account programs like Ohio’s proposed Backpack Bill:

“Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Education Law Center and Southern Poverty Law Center Decry Inadequate and Inequitable School Funding Across Southern States

In his masterful book Schoolhouse Burning, published in 2020, Derek Black traces the history of racial injustice in America’s public schools—through Jim Crow and the efforts more recently to undermine the impact of Brown v. Board of Education.  He concludes by examining two parallel trends today across the Southern states: lagging public school funding and growing school privatization:

“The Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Northwest—the parts of America with the fewest racial minorities—have only suffered modest privatization. Their public school systems for the most part do not face major privatization threats… But the Southeast—the Confederacy’s old stronghold—tells the exact opposite story: (there are) large percentages of African American students and… their public schools are facing deep privatization forces… Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement…  The deepest and most consistent school funding gaps are in the Southeast and Southwest, with far smaller funding gaps in the Upper Midwest and Northeast.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 239-242)

This week the Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center together released Inequity in School Funding: Southern States Must Prioritize Fair Public School Spending, a school finance brief documenting the continuation in 2021 of the trends to which Derek Black called our attention. The brief examines the insufficiency and inequity of public school funding in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas.

“A state’s funding level is measured by analyzing the combined state and local revenues provided through each state’s school finance formula… Even after adjusting for regional cost differences, all eight Southern states score in the bottom third of states nationwide, and four are in the bottom 10… Florida and Mississippi, ranking 45th and 46th, have per-pupil levels that are more than $4,000 below the national average ($15,114).”

“The hallmark of a fair school funding system is that it delivers more funding to educate students in high-poverty districts.” The eight states profiled in the brief persist in refusing to distribute state funding equitably to meet the additional needs in school districts with concentrations of “low-income students, students of color, English learners, students with disabilities and students facing homelessness, trauma and other challenges.” “Alabama, Florida and Texas have regressive funding, with high-poverty districts, on average, receiving less per-pupil funding than low poverty districts. Florida and Alabama both have an average funding disadvantage of 12% in high-poverty districts… In Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee there is no clear variation in funding relative to student poverty.”

The brief’s authors continue: “Fair school funding has particular significance in the South because the historical context of racial segregation and resistance to integration still permeates education politics and policymaking. The segregation academies designed to evade school integration, which flourished in the post-Brown v. Board of Education era, have left an undeniable legacy. Public schools today enroll a disproportionate number of Black and Latinx students, while white students are overrepresented in private schools. As Southern states dramatically increase funding for voucher programs, public schools remain drastically underfunded… The poverty rate among Black and Latinx families in the South is double that of white families, meaning they are more likely to bear the brunt of inequitable school funding.”

The brief’s authors are not optimistic.  They worry about barriers to addressing the needs of Southern states’ children in public schools: “Many Southern states are facing the expansion of school voucher programs that divert scarce public funds to unaccountable and discriminatory private institutions.”

Simultaneously, ugly politics are undermining the political will to do something about the injustice: “(P)olitical leaders are using divisive issues to undermine the viability of public schools (e.g., imposing bans on mask mandates and inclusive, culturally responsive curricula).  Such tactics should be called out for what they are: mere distractions that seek to undermine the critical role public schools play in shaping the economic and social health of the region.”

U.S. Department of Education Takes First Step toward Regulating Charters

Last week something important happened, “finally,” as Valerie Strauss emphasized in her Washington Post report.  The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil rights issued new guidance confirming that charter schools must comply with the same civil rights protections as public schools.

As quoted by Education Week, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Cathrine E. Lhamon issued the following: “I am writing to remind you that the Federal civil rights laws, regulations, and guidance that apply to charter schools are the same as those that apply to other public schools.  For this reason, it is essential that charter school officials and staff be knowledgeable about federal civil rights laws.  These laws extend to all operations of a charter school, including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology.”

While Education Week‘s Evie Blad explains that the new guidance applies particularly to admissions, provision of services for students with disabilities and English language learners, she continues:  “In addition to those areas, charter schools should ensure their policies and practices comply with all federal civil rights law, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination based on sex; and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits discrimination based on disability.”

Does the new guidance mean that the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education has the enforcement capacity to tour the country examining the policies and practices of the thousands of charter schools that may be violating the civil rights of their applicants or their students?  No.  The U.S. Department of Education does not maintain an enforcement staff.  The guidance, however, will strengthen the Department’s capacity to respond to formal complaints submitted to its Office of Civil Rights.

Several organizations that have been fighting for the rights of children in charter schools praised the Department’s release of the new guidance.  The new guidance will strengthen the case of organizations that have already filed formal civil rights complaints about alleged violations, and it will encourage others to be aggressive in seeking enforcement of federal civil rights law.

The Southern Poverty Law Center—which filed a lawsuit in New Orleans in 2010 on behalf of students with severe disabilities who had been unable to secure appropriate placement in the city’s schools post-Hurricane Katrina, after the traditional school district was radically transformed and largely charterized—comments on the new guidance: “This action is especially important in New Orleans, where we’ve filed suit over the widespread failure of charter schools to provide appropriate educational services to children with disabilities.”

Advancement Project, which has led a national protest movement about the racially discriminatory overuse of harsh discipline practices like expulsions and suspensions, commented:  “We applaud DOE’s announcement today regarding charters—particularly DOE’s emphasis that its previous guidance on the legal and educational risks posed by harsh disciplinary measures, such as suspensions and expulsions, applies fully to charters.”

And the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote: “We applaud the Department of Education for releasing this very important, long-overdue guidance, which makes crystal clear that charter schools—like all public schools—have a federal obligation to ensure that all children, regardless of race, national origin, sex, or disability status, receive a fair and equal opportunity to succeed.  This guidance is the first since the Clinton administration to clarify the responsibilities charter schools have under federal civil rights laws.”

At a meeting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan I attended several years ago, he said, “Good charter schools are part of the solution.  Bad charter schools are part of the problem.”  Despite that his Department required all states submitting proposals for Race to the Top to remove any statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools, and despite that his Department provides funding for support and expansion of charter schools, his Department of Education has taken no steps until now to promote regulation of charter schools for the purpose of protecting their students’ rights.

Groups across the country that seek to protest what they believe are blatantly discriminatory practices by charter schools will now, based on the Departmental Guidance released last week, have a greater chance of ensuring that civil rights violations are addressed.