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Janresseger: Vouchers: Should States Be Subsidizing Private Education at a Steep Cost to Public Schools?

Wisconsin and Ohio were the pioneers, the states which launched school vouchers—public tax dollars covering private school tuition.  Wisconsin launched Milwaukee vouchers in 1990, and Ohio followed suit in 1996 with a Cleveland voucher program.

What are the problems with the idea of vouchers?

Vouchers have always been endorsed by their proponents as providing an escape for promising students from so-called “failing” public schools—as measured by test scores.  But research demonstrates (see here and here) that test scores correlate not with school quality but instead with the aggregate income of the neighborhoods where public schools are located and the families who live there.  Research demonstrates that ameliorating student poverty would more directly address students’ needs.

The idea that vouchers help students academically hasn’t held up either.  A study by the pro-voucher Thomas Fordham Institute demonstrates that in Ohio, voucher students regularly fall behind their public school counterparts.  But proponents of school privatization (including the Thomas Fordham Institute itself) regularly ignore the evidence.

In a recent summary published in The NationJennifer Berkshire explains that while there is a lack of empirical evidence justifying vouchers, their proponents support them ideologically: “But the GOP’s true policy aim these days is much more ambitious: private school vouchers for all. In Ohio, students in two-thirds of the state’s school districts are now eligible for vouchers, a ballooning program that is on track to cost taxpayers $350 million by the end of the school year. And in Florida, school vouchers are now being offered to middle-class students, the latest gambit by conservatives in their effort to redefine public education as anything parents want to spend taxpayer money on. ‘For me, if the taxpayer is paying for the education, it’s public education,’ Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis proclaimed earlier this year.”

In Ohio, based on state report card grades which legislators from both parties seem to agree are deeply flawed, vouchers are now to be awarded to students in so-called ‘under-performing’ schools in 400 of the state’s 610 school districts. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver explains, “(T)he legislature has widened the definition of a low-performing school to the point of absurdity, expanding the list of districts with ‘under-performing’ schools from 40 in the fall of 2018, to 139 in 2019, and around 400—nearly two-thirds of all districts in the state—by 2020.”

And EdChoice, one of the Ohio’s four statewide voucher programs, takes the money through the deduction method, counting the voucher student as enrolled in the local school and then extracting $4,650 for each elementary school voucher and $6,000 for each high school voucher right out of the public school district’s budget. But a serious problem arises because in Ohio, state funding is allocated at different rates from school district to school district, and in many cases the vouchers extract more dollars per pupil from the local school budget than the state awards to that district in per pupil state aid.

This year’s state budget brought a new threat to public schools via an amendment quietly added and never debated. Until this year, to qualify for a voucher, an Ohio student must have been enrolled in the public school in the year previous to applying for the voucher.  But, secreted into the state budget last summer was an amendment providing that high school students may now receive a voucher even if they have never been enrolled in a public school.

Finally there is the problem that, due to years of tax cuts, school funding for a mass of Ohio school districts is capped.  Even though these districts are subsidizing an increasing number of vouchers for students who have never been enrolled in public schools, the school districts are not receiving annual increases in state aid to cover those students’ vouchers.

Staver interviews Howard Fleeter, the state’s school finance policy expert: “What’s happened, Fleeter said, is that parents who have always sent their kids to private school applied for these vouchers, which are funded by the public schools. ‘They never would send their kids to a public school, and now they are getting a voucher… You’re just giving them a handout.’  In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district where Fleeter grew up, the number of applications for high school vouchers increased by 478% in a single year…. And its total voucher bill went up by about $3 million. ‘Cleveland Heights isn’t losing any students…. They are just losing money.'”  Fleeter continues: “If this doesn’t get unwound, I think it is significant enough in terms of the impact on the money schools get to undermine any new funding formula.”

The battle about vouchers in Wisconsin has significant elements in common with Ohio’s voucher fight. But Ohio is an all-Republican state—House, Senate, Governor—while Wisconsin now has a  Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who, as the former Superintendent of Public Instruction, deeply understands the funding crisis in the state’s public schools. Despite the Republican Wisconsin Legislature’s antagonism to Evers’ proposals, he promises to present the public with the fiscal realities for public schools posed by his state’s ever expanding school vouchers.

In a recent interview with the Wisconsin ExaminerEvers explains how he plans to reframe the voucher issue to present the fiscal impact of privatized vouchers on Wisconsin’s public schools: “Asked about the problem of draining funds from already-strapped public schools, he starts with a no-brainer—the effort to inform taxpayers exactly how much they are paying for the voucher expansion, just as public-school funding and other services are broken out on property-tax bills. ‘I certainly support any legislation to make it more transparent… I mean, people should know where their tax dollars are going.'” “For the last several years, he points out, a lot of the kids who are getting school vouchers are those who were already in private school. ‘So it’s less of a choice and more about subsidizing a separate system… Now we need to have a discussion about that…. whether the public at large agrees that we should be subsidizing parochial education…  That’s never been asked… It’s always been asked, ‘Should people have the opportunity to have the same choice that wealthier people do?’ That’s a reasonable thing to discuss.  But if the discussion is, should we subsidize private education? Is that right? That’s never been discussed. Never. We should talk about that.'”

What is rarely mentioned in the voucher debates is that no state legislature creating a voucher program has added a new tax to pay for it.  Instead the money always comes out of the coffers of the state education budget and, as in Ohio today, out of local school district budgets.

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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 to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...