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Janresseger: 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.”

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...