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School vouchers are even worse than you think
Republicans in states like Texas complain that public schools are failing, then starve them under the guise of "choice."
PROGRAMMING NOTE FROM AARON: I put together a lengthy video thread about House Republicans’ failed effort Tuesday to elect Jim Jordan as House speaker that you can scroll through starting here (no Twitter account required!). We also recently published an explainer about the GOP dysfunction that led to this point that you can read here. We’ll have more coverage of the speakership fiasco in future editions.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott really, really wants school vouchers. So much so that he called a special session to pass a bill, which he calls “education freedom,” after his efforts failed during Texas’s regular legislative session that ended earlier this year. It’s just the latest attempt by conservatives to shift public taxpayer dollars to private, often religious, schools.
School voucher programs can be structured in many ways, but at root, they’re always about the same thing: giving parents public money for their child to attend a private school. In some states, the voucher programs are restricted to certain populations, such as children with disabilities or families at or near the poverty line. However, the current push is for “universal” programs where anyone qualifies. In 2023, six states — Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Utah — have already passed universal laws. Texas would be the seventh.
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Some programs don’t get called vouchers but are just vouchers in disguise. Education savings accounts (ESAs), which most people are familiar with for college funding in the form of 529 accounts, are also a thing for K-12 schools. These are arguably even worse than the kind of vouchers where the state gives public money directly to private schools on behalf of parents. This is the approach Abbott has taken. With ESAs, the state puts taxpayer money in an account for parents, who can use it for more than just tuition.
For example, in Tennessee, not only can people use their ESA dollars for tuition, fees, and textbooks, but they can also use it for tutoring, transportation, computers, summer education programs, educational therapy services, and even for fees to hire a financial management organization to manage their ESA dollars. In Arizona, as one ESA parent enthused, she could use the money for zoo admission for her children because that is educational.
Vouchers are a giveaway to the well off
The important thing to understand about school vouchers is that they’re a redistribution of wealth to people with enough money to already be sending their children to private schools.
When Arizona started offering “universal” vouchers, where everyone qualifies, regardless of income, 78 percent of the students who applied in the program's inaugural year were already not enrolled in public schools. That’s a similar percentage relative to both Wisconsin and New Hampshire but is blown out of the water by Arkansas. There, during the first year of the program, 95 percent of the participants hadn’t attended public schools the year before. In other words, the vast majority of the money went to people already paying for private schools, not parents who longed to send their kids to private schools but could not afford it. Vouchers do not exist to increase school choice for students from lower-income families; they exist to ensure that people who already send their children to private schools get taxpayer dollars to do so.
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Even when vouchers are more narrowly tailored, they still don’t deliver. Advocates of vouchers tout how vouchers will “empower” parents to make better choices for students with special needs. However, alarms have been sounding for years over how students with special needs are ill-served in private schools, where they lack the protections of the laws that govern public schools.
The major program in America that governs access to education for students with special needs, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), does not apply to private schools. Therefore, students in the public school system who receive special education services — everything from speech therapy to behavioral supports to physical accommodations — may not receive those services when they transfer to a private school if the private school doesn’t feel like providing them directly or contracting with a public school for services.
A 2017 report from the non-partisan federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed the websites of private school choice programs. It estimated that no more than half of schools participating in voucher programs even mention students with disabilities on their websites. The GAO also found that roughly three-quarters of students enrolled in 15 different voucher programs for children with disabilities were not given any information on how or whether their rights would change by attending a private school. Disability advocates in Texas testified against the voucher bill there, pointing out that private schools aren’t even required to enroll students with disabilities.
Vouchers are also expensive. Florida had 18,585 students in their voucher program in the 2020-2021 school year, back when vouchers were provided only to students with disabilities and those from lower-income families. Florida spent almost $191 million taxpayer dollars on those students, approximately $10,555 per student, or over $1,000 more than the average of what Florida spent on public school students that year.
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In Arizona, the average voucher is $15,189, or more than double the average amount spent per student in public schools. An estimate from the governor’s office shows that state’s universal program could cost $943 million for fiscal year 2024, with more than 97,000 students receiving vouchers. Fifty-three percent of all new education spending in Arizona for fiscal year 2024 will go to only 8.4 percent of students in the state. Finally, Arizona simply fills a debit card with money and gives that to parents, relying upon them to upload receipts for debit card transactions. In the last quarter of 2022, parents had failed to upload receipts for more than 17,000 transactions they had already made.
But the high cost of vouchers doesn’t matter when the real goal is to starve public schools. Nowhere is this more evident than in Texas, where the genesis for this most recent push for universal vouchers seems to have come from Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest foray into the culture wars over what children are taught. In an event earlier this year, Abbott stated school choice was necessary because of “an extraordinary movement to expand transgenderism in schools” in the state of Texas and that public school teachers were “using their positions to try to cultivate and groom these young kids” into being transgender.
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The Texas bill, which has already passed the state Senate, would authorize education savings accounts and immediately shift $500 million of taxpayer money to the program. Students would receive $8,000 yearly for tuition and related expenses at private schools, or over $1,800 more than the base funding of $6,160 per pupil at public schools. The program’s total cost is estimated to balloon to $1 billion within three years.
School choice advocates are feeling particularly emboldened right now, and why not? In 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that if states choose to fund any private schools, they must also fund religious ones, even if those religious schools use the money for religious education or worship. This opened the door to legalizing a massive shift of public money to religious schools.
A vicious cycle
Nationwide, the GOP has committed itself to the notion that public schools are failing while also being hotbeds of woke-ness, and that only school choice will save students. This creates a dangerous symbiosis: Republicans routinely vote to cut public school funding, decry that schools are failing, and then say that no more money should go to public schools.
Indeed, the budget that House Republicans tried to foist on America to prevent a shutdown contained drastic cuts to Title I, which funds education at schools with a large percentage of low-income students. The proposed 80 percent cut would have required a force reduction of up to 226,000 school teachers, aides, and other staff. The House GOP also proposed cutting Head Start, which provides preschool funding for lower-income students. Proposals like this are dead on arrival so long as Democrats control part of Congress or the White House, but they speak to Republican priorities.
Back in Texas, Abbott may very likely get his way, even though the state House has previously rejected his efforts. In this latest iteration, Abbott is holding overall public school funding, including a raise for teachers, hostage until he gets his vouchers. Legislators in the state House who have thus far resisted the voucher bill may feel forced to give in, particularly as teachers were the only state employees not to receive a raise this year and, when adjusted for inflation, their pay has basically been flat for a decade. If legislators stand strong, no overall public school funding bill gets passed. If they buckle and pass the voucher law, public school funding gets gutted. Either way, the students of Texas lose.
That’s it for today
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