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Janresseger: Trying to Convince Your Legislators Not to Expand Vouchers? Here Are Some Facts You Need

Last Thursday’s post examined the years of ideological groundwork by far right organizations to undermine our society’s confidence in the work of schoolteachers and to threaten public education itself. Now, as the 50 state legislatures begin their post-election lame-duck sessions or as their new legislative sessions begin after the holidays, elected officials across several states will be considering and voting on bills for Education Savings Account universal vouchers—the current favorite of the far right.

What are Education Savings Account (ESA) vouchers?  In a recent piece for SALONKathryn Joyce defines ESAs as a: “a form of school voucher that allows parents to opt out of public schools and use a set amount of state funding (sometimes delivered via debit card) on almost any educational expenses they see fit. ESAs can be used towards charter schools, private schools, parochial schools and low-cost (and typically low-quality) ‘voucher schools,’ as well as online schools, homeschooling expenses, unregulated ‘microschools’ (where a group of parents pool resources to hire a private teacher) or tutoring.”  ESAs extract state revenue out of the state’s public education budget and with little oversight deliver the power of spending the ESA voucher to the parents themselves.

If your legislature will soon be debating ESA vouchers or any other kind of publicly funded school vouchers, Diane Ravitch just published a plea from Josh Cowen, a professor at Michigan State University.  Cowen’s review of the problems with vouchers will help you shape your advocacy for funding the public schools and avoiding more vouchers. Twenty years ago, Cowen was involved in early research that seemed to show that pilot voucher programs might have a positive effect on student achievement.  But now, longitudinal research over two decades based on new and much larger data sets has caused Cowen to change his mind:

“Large-scale independent studies in D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio show that for kids who left public schools, harmful voucher impacts actually meet or exceed what the pandemic did to test scores. That’s also a similar impact to Louisiana—to what Hurricane Katrina did to student achievement back in 2005. Think about that the next time you hear a politician or activist claim we need taxpayer support for private schools to offset what the pandemic did to student learning… The newer D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio studies that took place after 2013 have showed pandemic and Katrina-sized harm to student test scores… (T)hose D.C., Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio studies represent our best understanding to date of what happens when you expand vouchers beyond the initial test phase… Vouchers just don’t work. The kids who stand to gain from private schooling were and are already there. For the vast majority of kids, they’re better off in public schools. That’s what the latest voucher research shows.”

One problem according to Professor Cowen is that far-right groups who advocate for vouchers funded much of the early research: “(P)erhaps the biggest single funder—perhaps even larger than Betsy DeVos herself—is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. The Bradley Foundation is a little known group based in Wisconsin and they’ve given tens of millions of dollars to voucher activism over the years. Bradley not only funds voucher activism, it funds voucher research, too.  It was a major funder of the (early) Milwaukee evaluation I was part of…. I don’t think they directly influenced our results, but generally speaking you don’t want activism and research funding to mix… (S)hould the Sackler family fund research on the addictive properties of Oxycontin? Should Exxon fund studies about the existence of climate change?”

Cowen continues: “Bradley is not alone. The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing organization known for its pro-voucher advocacy…. has… distributed talking points that, under the guise of objective research, attack school diversity and inclusion and directly question health care support for LGBTQ children. Heritage has recently released a report-card style rubric rating state laws on a so-called ‘Education Freedom’ index…. That report card includes the extent to which issues like diversity or sexual preference are components of public school teaching curricula. The author of each of these documents is a Heritage Senior Fellow named Jay P. Greene. The same Jay Greene who, while a conservative scholar at the University of Arkansas, was co-director of that Bradley-funded voucher project… back in 2005.”

Cowen describes his personal journey as an academic researcher who has watched the growing trends in large studies of the academic impact of the expansion of school vouchers over the past decades: “Because of my long career working in the middle of all these voucher advocates and researchers, I’ve been asked multiple times what changed my mind. Or, more specifically, why am I speaking out today?”  Here is his answer: “I had a naive sense that the facts would speak for themselves… I assumed that catastrophic results like those in Louisiana—and then confirmed in Indiana, Ohio, and D.C.—would have killed vouchers a thousand time over.” Then he noticed something else:  “We know private schools taking public money can and often do discriminate against certain children. In Florida, for example, one private school barring LGBTQ kids has received $1.6 million so far in taxpayer funding. In Indiana, more than $16 million has gone to schools refusing to admit LGBTQ kids—or even kids with LGBTQ parents—or about 1 out of every 10 private schools on the taxpayer dime.”

Cowen’s analysis is critically important. But what about the fact that vouchers operate as a parasite sucking school funding out of the public system? Cowen does explain that “vouchers overwhelmingly fund children who were already in private school without them. In states that have released those numbers—Arizona, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin—we know more than 75% of voucher applicants came from private schools.” This is Cowen’s way of reminding readers that vouchers drive state funding to a whole new group of students who were never enrolled in the public schools.

Cowen does not, however, fully explore my most urgent worry about the expansion of vouchers: I know of no state where the legislature has created a separate funding stream for vouchers. The money always comes out of the state (public) education budget. The students who carry a voucher out of the public system and those already in private school who now suddenly acquire a public tuition subsidy are siphoning the public’s investment out of the public schools where the majority of the state’s students continue to be enrolled.

Consider these facts that are part of a lawsuit filed last January in my state by over 100 public school districts, who argue that the state’s expansion of EdChoice vouchers violates the Ohio’s constitution’s requirement that Ohio must provide an adequate and efficient system of public schools: “The EdChoice Scholarship Program poses an existential threat to Ohio’s public school system. Not only does this voucher program unconstitutionally usurp Ohio’s public tax dollars to subsidize private school tuitions, it does so by depleting Ohio’s foundation funding—the pool of money out of which the state funds Ohio’s public schools… The discrepancy in per pupil foundation funding is so great that some districts’ private school pupils receive, as a group, more in funding via EdChoice Vouchers than Ohio allocates in foundation funding for the entire public school districts where those students reside. This voucher program effectively cripples the public school districts’ resources, creates an ‘uncommon’, or private system of schools unconstitutionally funded by taxpayers, siphons hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds into private (and mostly religious) institutions, and discriminates against minority students by increasing segregation in Ohio’s public schools. Because private schools receiving EdChoice funding are not subject to Ohio’s Sunshine Laws or most other regulations applicable to public schools, these private facilities operate with impunity, exempt from public scrutiny despite the public funding that sustains them.”

I hope that advocates across the states will push legislators who will be considering launching new school vouchers or expanding older voucher programs to look at Professor Cowen’s research showing that public schools academically surpass private schools that accept vouchers.

I also hope advocates will force legislators to examine the impact of the theft of essential state tax revenue from the public schools which are already likely to be underfunded.  One of the nation’s primary school finance experts, Bruce Baker summarizes the funding reality: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed…..”

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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 ...