Conservatives Are Bringing An Old Policy to A New Fight Over Public Schools

School vouchers, which use public funds to send some students to private schools, are more than 30 years old. But this year, bills are being introduced around the country that would push school vouchers into a new frontier. 

While traditionally, vouchers and similar programs have been used for specific student populations, more states are seeking to create what’s known as education savings accounts. These accounts would grant money to each public school student under 18 and give it outright to parents to spend as they see fit, allowing them to spend the funds on a range of education expenses that include traditional private schools, but also religious schools, online schools and approved costs for homeschooled children. In the past, education savings accounts have been open to limited populations, like special needs K-12 students, but many of these new bills would make the programs open to everyone, regardless of a family’s ability to pay. 

Advocates have been pushing for education savings accounts, also sometimes called universal school vouchers, for at least a decade, but recent political changes have made them likelier to succeed than ever. They are empowered by a Supreme Court decision last summer allowing people to use taxpayer-funded tuition assistance for religious schools, along with attacks on teachings related to race and gender identity from right-leaning politicians that have eroded support for public schools, especially among Republican voters. 

Public school advocates argue the plans amount to an attack on the foundational idea of public education itself, in effect transferring a public good to a private benefit, and are driven more by culture-war concerns than the educational needs of students. If more states establish these education savings accounts, it could radically change public education, and how American families experience schools could vary a great deal based on where they live and who governs. 

That’s true in Iowa, where lawmakers held a hearing on the proposed legislation on Tuesday. State residents stepped forward to speak out for and against the plan during the hearing, which was streamed online and lasted more than an hour and a half. When a 12-year veteran of teaching approached the microphone, he echoed a common criticism: that the education savings plan will take desperately needed resources away from public schools.

On the other side, Jennifer Turner, a parent and supporter of the accounts, made it clear that she was far more worried about culture than cash. “I hear others talk about how great public schools are, but they’re underfunded,” she said. “That’s not why most of us parents want to move our children out of the public schools. It’s the new curriculums and social, emotional learning and social justice and all of the things that are brought into our schools that don’t align with our values.” 

A similar bill failed in the state legislature last year, but now Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers and a governor who has prioritized the cause. Republican confidence in the bill is so high that it was the first bill introduced in the Iowa House this term. It was passed by committees in both chambers of the state legislature Wednesday, the day after the hearing. And legislators in at least 10 more states have introduced bills expanding or creating such programs, and more are reportedly considering them for the current term.

Universal school voucher bills are increasingly widespread

States with existing or introduced legislation for education savings accounts, and partisan control of branches of state government

State Status Governor Senate House Control
Arizona In place D R R Split
Connecticut Introduced D D D D
Florida In place for limited population R R R R
Illinois Introduced D D D D
Indiana Introduced R R R R
Iowa Introduced R R R R
Mississippi In place for limited population* R R R R
Missouri Introduced R R R R
New Hampshire Introduced R R R R
New Jersey Introduced D D D D
Oregon Introduced D D D D
Tennessee In place for limited population R R R R
Virginia Introduced R D R Split
West Virginia In place R R R R

* Mississippi’s state legislature is considering expanding its current ESA program.

Sources: LEGISCAN, state legislatures

These bills are coming amid a broader effort among some Republican politicians and right-leaning advocates to give parents a greater voice in their children’s education. “The public schools are waging war against American children and American families,” Christopher Rufo, the documentary filmmaker turned activist, told New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg in November 2021. 

Efforts to expand school vouchers and programs like education savings accounts have been blocked by state courts in the past. But now, with the Supreme Court’s ruling, states are revisiting those plans. Arizona and West Virginia implemented the broadest plans in the nation recently.

In a 2020 speech, Betsy DeVos, former President Donald Trump’s education secretary, framed her push for these programs as a way to give parents power. “The ‘Washington knows best’ crowd really loses their minds over that. They seem to think that the people’s money doesn’t belong to the people,” she said. “That it instead belongs to ‘the public,’ or rather, what they really mean — government.” DeVos’s organization, the American Federation for Children, now advocates broadly for “school choice,” and supports education savings accounts. Details and numbers vary, but the general idea of the education savings accounts is that each parent receives the money the state would otherwise spend on their children, and let parents decide how to spend it instead.

Tools that allowed parents to use government funding to pay for private schools were first introduced in Milwaukee in 1990, but in the beginning they were used almost exclusively for kids with disabilities who had needs local schools couldn’t meet, families with low incomes, and children in high-poverty school districts. Eventually, this expanded to include students who were enrolled in schools deemed failing under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

Now those limits are being removed. For example, the Iowa program, if it passes, would only be available to children in families who earn less than about $84,000 a year (up to three times the federal poverty line). But after three years, the program would open to all families, regardless of income. Those who are organizing against these bills argue that the money to reimburse or subsidize middle-class and wealthy families would come at the expense of already insufficient public education funding, while simultaneously failing to provide low-income families with enough money to cover the cost of private education outright. Nationwide, the average cost of private K-12 tuition is more than $12,000 per year.  

Legislators are also helped by falling support for public schools, especially among Republican voters. A Pew Research Center survey from August 2021 found that just 42 percent of Republicans thought public schools had a positive effect on the way things are going in the country today. A year later, Gallup found that 55 percent of those surveyed said they were dissatisfied with the quality of K-12 education in the United States, while 42 percent were satisfied. In an open-ended question, the fourth-most-cited reason for this dissatisfaction was “political agendas being taught.” 

School funding is more complicated than a per-pupil allocation. Public schools rely on tax dollars contributed to state general funds by all taxpayers and from the federal government, and distribute them based on a district’s enrollment and needs. They are also obligated to educate all students. If enrollment drops because parents withdraw their children from public schools, a district’s budget could fall. That is most likely to hurt children from families with low incomes or who live in neighborhoods that lack non-public options.

Indeed, opposition to these school choice programs have sometimes come from Republicans representing rural districts in very rural states, where public schools are often the only option and a major employer. In other states, such as Texas and Tennessee, school-choice advocates have floated the idea of exempting rural districts from the voucher programs and concentrating their efforts only on cities, potentially draining urban districts — with diverse, and sometimes high-poverty student populations — of students and cash. 

Democrats, long opposed to school vouchers, are also opposed to educational savings accounts. President Biden’s secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, has advocated for increased school funding and expanded public schools. Democratic governors around the country echo these priorities, including spending more on improving school facilities and improving teacher pay.

But in many states, Republican leaders are leaning into the culture war aspect. Some have already passed legislation banning critical race theory, a legal framework for understanding systemic racism that is not often taught in public K-12, and many more are reaffirming their anti-CRT positions this year, along with rules surrounding gender expression and education. Advocates are also demanding further “curriculum transparency” and “Parents’ Bill of Rights” legislation, which often means a power to view classroom instruction and remove their child from a lesson if they disagree with a topic.

These moves come after a decade of decreases in school funding across the country and teacher strikes and protests for higher pay from West Virginia to Oklahoma. “We’ve all just lost so much over the last 12 years that we just don’t even know what a fully funded classroom would even feel like,” said Beth Lewis, a former teacher who works with Save Our Schools Arizona.

As these fights continue to unfold this year, they further enmesh public education itself in America’s broader political wars.

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