This week in Iowa, Governor Kim Reynolds signed an Education Savings Account, universal voucher program into law. And last week in Utah, the same kind of voucher plan took the first step toward adoption when it was passed by Utah’s House of Representatives.
The Des Moines Register reports on Iowa’s new vouchers. The program will “phase in over three years and eventually allow all Iowa families to use up to $7,598 a year in an ‘education savings account’ for private school tuition. If any money is left over after tuition and fees, families could use the funds for specific educational expenses, including textbooks, tutoring, standardized testing fees, online education programs and vocational and life skills training. The $7,598 per private school student is the same amount of funding the state provides to public school students and is expected to rise in future years… The bill allows the Iowa Department of Education to contract with a third party to administer the education savings accounts, but the state has not yet issued a request for proposals from companies seeking to manage the funds.”
It would appear that the Iowa Legislature tried to calm the fears of the public school community by promising that, “Public school districts would also receive an additional $1,205 in funding for students receiving education savings accounts who live within the public school district’s boundaries.” But despite that promise, a drop in overall public school funding is expected: “By the fourth year, the (Legislative Services) agency estimates public school districts will receive $49.8 million in new per-student funds for private school students within the public district’s boundaries. The agency also expects a net decrease of $46 million in public school funding as a result of more students attending private schools.”
It is hard to keep track of all the states that now have school vouchers or are considering voucher programs and to know which states have the latest flavor of vouchers—Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Most ESA programs, unlike Iowa’s, don’t even require that families use the vouchers at private schools. In most places, ESA’s can be used for educational programs, for educational tools and materials like books and computers, and for homeschooling. In some states families can use the money for so-called micro-schools in which families come together and hire a teacher to work with children in someone’s home.
Why is there so much so much legislative activity about expanding vouchers? Several factors are important to consider, and many of them were the subject of economist Gordon Lafer’s analysis in The One-Percent Solution. Lafer’s book focused on the public policy that flowed from state legislatures after the Tea Party wave election in 2010, but his observations are still on point as we begin 2023. Lafer enumerates all the reasons why far-right ideologues and big corporate moneyed interests seek to undermine and privatize public schools: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce, National Federation for Independent Business, or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the agenda… The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all coalesce around the school system… There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government. Finally, the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence… (F)or those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than around public education. In all these ways, then, school reform presents something like the perfect crystallization of the corporate legislative agenda.” (The One-Percent Solution, pp 128-129)
It is hard for public school advocates to mobilize nationally against the expansion of vouchers. Voucher battles are fought state by state because public education and the funding of public education is a state-by-state issue. Advocates are likely to focus on public education legislation in their own state and not to pay attention to what’s happening elsewhere. And citizens are not likely to pay much attention to what is happening in the legislature. Once again, Gordon Lafer identifies the problem: “(M)any 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… Apart from labor unions and a handful of progressive activists, the corporate agenda… encounters little public resistance at the state level because hardly anyone knows about or understands the issues… So, too, corporate lobbies’ financial advantage is magnified in the states. Citizens United marked a sea change in state as well as federal politics.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 34-36)
Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University who has studied the impact of school privatization and the politics around privatizing public schools, recently published a reminder that school privatization is driven by the power of the corporate agenda. Expansion of vouchers has never been an expression of voters’ overall preference: “School choice is continuing to expand across the United states…. But these successes often come in spite of overwhelming voter opposition to school choice programs… According to the pro-voucher organization EdChoice.org, the U.S. has over 75 publicly funded private school choice programs, including vouchers, and education savings accounts, as well as another 45 charter school programs. But all of these programs have been implemented by legislators, not the electorate… In fact, voters have been allowed to weigh in on school choice programs only nine times since 2000, and they almost always reject them, often by overwhelming margins. Only twice did school choice programs pass through the ballot box. In 2012, Georgia voters empowered their legislature with the ability to create charter schools. That same year… Washington voters passed a charter school referendum.”
Who are the far-right advocacy groups and think tanks powerfully promoting Education Savings Account vouchers? They include the usual suspects: the American Legislative Exchange Council and a state- by-state group of think tanks that are ALEC’s partners in the State Policy Network, EdChoice, the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Institute for Justice, which provides two model laws—“Education Savings Account Act: Publicly Funded,” and “Education Savings Account Act: Tax-Credit Funded“—so that state legislators can merely adapt a canned statute to their own state’s particular needs. SourceWatch reports corporate funding streams for these and other far-right think tanks that promote vouchers—funding from the Koch Brothers, the Bradley Foundation, and investments from the Donor’s Capital Fund, a powerful investor of corporate dark money since the 2010, U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United.
In the past two years, the campaign to undermine public schooling and promote the expansion of vouchers has developed a new strategy to convince parents that their children in public schools are being brainwashed by critical race theory and surrounded by discussion of gender and sexual orientation. In a new report published by the Network for Public Education this week, political scientist Maurice Cunningham traces the money behind what may appear to be a spontaneous emergence of parents’ groups—Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, and No Left Turn in Education. Cunningham points to clues that these are not local grassroots groups of parents; their websites, for example, betray a big investment in communications. And while, for example, the founders of Parents Defending Education (PDE) claim to be a bunch of working moms, Cunningham explains: “PDE took in $3,178,272 in contributions and grants in 2021… Donor’s Trust, a dark money donor associated with the Koch network donated $20,250 to PDE in 2021. The Achelis & Bodman Foundation which funds voucher and charter school programs and targets public education, contributed $25,000. Searle Freedom Trust, another right-wing donor with ties to Donors Trust, contributed $250,000 in 2021. We don’t know all the names on the checks, but we do know that those checks had to be pretty large, that the attorneys and consultants sit at the hierarchy of right-wing operatives, and that the board members and staffers are connected to the highest levels of conservative donors including the Koch network.”
The same people who are promoting vouchers are working to scare parents with the huge, culture war campaign driven by identifiable funders and a mass of dark money supporting an education marketplace and undermining parents’ confidence in public schools. But as Christopher Lubienski, the scholar who has studied the effect of the privatization of public education reminds us, expanding vouchers has not improved the outcomes for our children: “(R)ecent research is repeatedly showing that… vouchers are not a good investment. Although publicly funded vouchers may be propping up some private schools that might otherwise go out of business, they are not really helping the people they purport to help. In fact… study after study shows that students using vouchers are falling behind where they would have been if they had remained in public schools. Thus, policymakers might think twice about defying voters on initiatives that actually cause harm to children.”
The political theorist Benjamin Barber warned that school choice does not really provide freedom for families: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)