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Janresseger: 2023: The Year School Vouchers Became an Entitlement for Wealthy Children

This year may go down as the year of the school voucher. Seven states passed new voucher programs and ten states expanded private school tuition vouchers in 2023. This year’s trend was marked by an especially disturbing development: many of the state legislatures turned school privatization into an entitlement for the children of the wealthy.

For POLITICOAndrew Atterbury recently highlighted the explosion of private school vouchers across more than a dozen states this year, “fueled, in part, by groups like the American Federation for Children—founded by former Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.” But while advocates used to promote vouchers as a way to expand opportunity for poor children, many of these states are making wealthy children eligible: “That dynamic—the wealthy benefiting from vouchers while the poor are stuck—appears to be playing out nationally. While school choice is especially popular for families with incoming kindergarteners, data shows students who are accessing thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds are often already enrolled in private schools. In Florida, 84,505, or 69 percent, of these new voucher recipients were already enrolled in private school.  A much smaller group—16,096, or 13 percent of voucher students—left their public schools to enter the program. Another 22,294 students began kindergarten with a scholarship… More than half of the voucher funding in Arizona is going to students previously enrolled in private school, homeschooling or other non-public options… In a similar trend, nearly all students participating in the $32.5 million Arkansas voucher program—95 percent—were either entering kindergarten, or enrolled in a private school the previous year.”

And what about family income?  “Nearly half of new enrollees to Florida’s expanded scholarship program—53,828 students—are above the previous income thresholds for scoring Florida’s scholarships…. In Arizona, 45 percent of scholarship applicants came from the wealthiest quarter of students in the state.”

When Ohio’s legislature expanded school vouchers as part of the state budget, the state did so by raising the income eligibility level—creating a government-funded entitlement for all families no matter how high their income.

NPR’s George Shillcock reports that, according to November 29, 2023 data, while, “the Ohio Legislative Services Commission initially estimated the EdChoice Voucher program would cost $397 million this fiscal year for the new vouchers… the numbers are now out and show over 66,000 families applied to the new program costing $412 million this year alone. In total, over 90,000 families applied to the school voucher program… including renewals from previous years and the Cleveland Scholarship Program, costing more than $580 million.”

Blogger and former member of the Ohio House of Representatives, Steve Dyer examines which families are benefiting from Ohio’s 2023 school voucher entitlement: “According to state data, more new EdChoice Expansion Voucher high school recipients come from families making more than $150,000 a year than families making less than $120,000 a year… There are more new vouchers flowing to subsidize private high school students whose families make as much as $250,000 a year… than there are flowing to subsidize private high school students whose families make less than 1/2 that much. An astounding $1.3 million of your tax dollars went to subsidize the private school tuition of families who make more than $250,000 a year!”  Data is not available to document how many of Ohio’s new vouchers are being awarded to simply cover tuition for children already enrolled in private schools.

No state has established a new tax to pay for its new voucher program. States expanding their investment in vouchers will pay for the private school vouchers at the expense of their public schools, thereby dismantling the one public institution with the capacity to serve the educational needs and protect the rights of all children. Private schools, on the other hand, may select their students and push out those whose test scores lag or who struggle with behavior problems; may charge tuition above the value of the voucher; may neglect to provide school transportation or free school lunch for children who cannot afford the school’s lunch; and in many states are not required to hire certified teachers. Public schools serve children everywhere, including the rural counties and small towns with too few school-aged children to have any private schools where students might use a voucher.

The Ohio Education Association’s president Scott DeMauro reminds taxpayers what only a strong system of public schools can accomplish: “The reason that it is so important to have a strong, fully funded public school system is because only public schools have the responsibility and the duty to serve all students, regardless of their race, their gender, their family income, regardless of who they are or their abilities.” While public schools are far from perfect, dogged educators and advocates have achieved progress over the past half century improving racial equity, equalizing school funding across communities, developing programming for English language learners, and developing the capacity for public schools to serve children with specific disabilities.

At the same time many states are enacting voucher expansions that serve comfortable and wealthy families, funding for federal programs that support poor children seems unusually fragile in Congress.  In 2021, as part of COVID relief, Congress expanded the Child Tax Credit and made it fully available to America’s poorest families, but child poverty doubled at the end of 2022, when Congress cancelled those reforms.

Congress avoided a government shutdown in early December by passing a continuing budget resolution to protect existing funding into the New Year. But after the holidays, a severely divided Congress must pass the federal budget for the current fiscal year.  Here are merely some of the programs to protect poor children that are at risk:

  • Federal COVID-era support for child care providers expired in September. Despite President Biden’s October 25th request to Congress for $16 billion in supplemental funding to keep vulnerable child care centers operational, the request awaits action in  Congress after the new year.
  • The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities describes threats to funding the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children: “Unfortunately, WIC is facing a funding shortfall for the first time in decades due to higher-than-expected participation and food costs, jeopardizing access to this highly effective program and risking disproportionate harm for Black and Hispanic families… With a shortfall looming and no assurance that additional funding is coming, states may soon take steps to try to slow enrollment and reduce spending.”
  • The controversial education budget proposed in the Republican dominated U.S. House Education Committee (but never voted on by the full House of Representatives) included an 80 percent cut in funding for Title I, the massive program dating back to the War on Poverty, that provides additional funding for school districts serving concentrations of children living in poverty. The level of funding for Title I will be determined when Congress acts on the 2024 budget.

The expansion of school vouchers across Red state legislatures is a symptom of a much larger problem.  Perhaps, however, the shocking explosion of this government entitlement for the wealthy will force us to ask ourselves what kind of society forgets its obligation to to its most vulnerable children.

The authors of The School Voucher Illusion: Exposing the Pretense of Equity encapsulate the meaning of this year’s school voucher expansion: “As currently structured, voucher policies in the United States are unlikely to help the students they claim to support. Instead, these policies have often served as a facade for the far less popular reality of funding relatively advantaged (and largely White) families, many of whom already attended—or would attend—private schools without subsidies. Although vouchers are presented as helping parents choose schools, often the arrangements permit the private schools to do the choosing… Advocacy that began with a focus on equity must not become a justification for increasing inequity. Today’s voucher policies have, by design, created growing financial commitments of taxpayer money to serve a constituency of the relatively advantaged that is redefining their subsidies as rights—often in jurisdictions where neighborhood public schools do not have the resources they need.” (The School Voucher Illusion: Exposing the Pretense of Equity, p. 290)

 

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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 Chris...