In 2015, when the Nevada legislature passed SB302, school voucher advocates celebrated to the hilt. They had good reason: The new law would offer so-called Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to every one of the state’s 500,000 K-12 students — the most ambitious such program in the nation.
The Nevada law was a potential game-changer because ESAs have become a model across the nation on how to tweak and rebrand school vouchers, a policy that is consistently unpopular with the general public. Vouchers have been voted down at the ballot box every time they’ve been attempted through referendum.
So imagine the disappointment two years later, when the legislature refused to allocate the funding necessary to implement the program, essentially pulling the plug on ESAs in the state.
What changed in two years? The legislative gains Republicans made in 2014 were wiped out in the 2016 election that swept public education allies, steadfast in their opposition to ESAs, into office. The Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) was relentless in its attack on the program. No matter what form or name a voucher program takes, the impact is always the same: scarce funds are drained from public schools and redirected to private schools that are unaccountable to the public.
When the legislature refused to fund ESAs in June 2017, Nevada students had reason to celebrate.
“The future and the chance for success is no longer threatened by the failed promise of private school vouchers,” said NSEA President Ruben Murillo.
In 2017, vouchers were also thwarted in deep red Texas, where rural GOP lawmakers, concerned how the scheme would shortchange the schools in their communities, helped defeat an expansive new bill that would have brought ESAs and “tax credit scholarships” (another school voucher in disguise) to the state’s school system. Public education advocates in Tennessee were also successful in holding off similar voucher programs in 2017.
In other states, the news isn’t as encouraging. Most notably, vouchers gained a foothold in Illinois with the passage of the “Opportunity Scholarship,” which dangles tax credits in front of corporations and individuals in exchange for contributions to private school scholarships.
New Hampshire may be on the verge of adopting its own ESA program, and pro-voucher lawmakers in Florida are determined to expand their already sizeable program by targeting bullied students.
2018 could be a pivotal year in the battle over school vouchers. Despite setbacks last year, voucher proponents are nothing if not relentless. Betsy DeVos is leading the Department of Education essentially for the sole purpose of pushing vouchers and other school privatization schemes nationwide, an effort fervently supported by GOP lawmakers in every state – if not the the majority of the public.
Which is why, says David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, public education activists must stay alert to the ongoing effort to push school voucher initiatives and to hold them up to public scrutiny.
“There’s a need to be vigilant in every state where governors and key legislators support these bills,” explains Sciarra. “Their strategy is often to move bills quickly and towards the end of the session so as to not give the public, parents, and taxpayers a chance to organize and defeat them.”
‘Privatization and Non-Transparency By Design’
Action around school vouchers at the state level in 2018 continues to be focused on Education Savings Accounts. In addition to the six states who have adopted ESA programs, 13 other states have introduced legislation.
“The trend is definitely moving away from traditional vouchers and toward ESA neo-voucher programs,” says Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos, associate professor of education policy at the University of Arizona.
Under an ESA, a state’s per-pupil education funding is put into an account that parents can tap into to pay for approved education expenses, including private school tuition. Therein lies the appeal –- voucher advocates see ESAs as an “end run” around state constitutions that forbid the use of public funds for religious activities (i.e., private religious schooling).
Skirting accountability and transparency, funding discrimination, and leaving our most vulnerable students behind – it’s clear that school vouchers are destructive and misguided schemes that use taxpayer dollars to experiment with our children’s education without any evidence of real, lasting positive results.
Jimenez-Castellanos is a co-author, along with Kevin Wellner of the University of Colorado, of a new policy brief that analyzes the emergence of ESA programs. Despite their growing popularity among many lawmakers, the authors state that ESAs, like other voucher programs, lack even the most rudimentary safeguards for accountability –- both financial and in terms of student performance:
“ESA programs embrace privatization and non-transparency by design. Accountability systems are absent, and data are limited …The best evidence about the likely academic outcomes of ESAs is therefore found in the research on conventional voucher programs. Overall, this voucher literature raises serious questions about the quality of the voucher-funded, private-school education, with recent studies for four different states suggesting that students using vouchers do worse than they would have done had they remained in their public schools.”
It’s a case educators in New Hampshire are taking to state lawmakers, who are considering SB193, an ESA bill that would redirect potentially up to $3,600 per student to parents to pay for private school tuition. The House and Senate have approved the bill but will have to reconsider final legislation once its financial impact has been assessed.
The state’s educators have mobilized against the bill, outraged that lawmakers seem willing to take such reckless action against the state’s first-rate school system. According to an estimate by Reaching Higher, under SB193, New Hampshire’s schools are estimated to lose over $6 million in the first year alone, and $36 million over five years.
“This is ill-conceived legislation that hands over tax dollars taken out of public schools and gives them to parents of children who homeschool their children, or send them to private or even religious-based schools in violation of the New Hampshire constitution,” said NEA-NH President Megan Tuttle. “All this without a fig leaf of accountability as to how those dollars will be spent.”
Tying Vouchers to Bullying
Another way ESAs gain traction in states, says Jimenez-Castellanos, is by “creating an alliance with a powerful constituency.” Arizona’s law, the first in the nation, was originally restricted to special education students. In 2017, the program was expanded so that all public school students could apply. (A citizens referendum on the expansion has been put on the ballot for 2018, thanks to an intensive grassroots effort by public education activists.)
“Focusing on students with a strong constituency – special ed and bullied students for example,” Jimenez-Castellanos says, “can help make vouchers more acceptable to families who might otherwise be opposed to the idea of using public funds for private schools.”
This bill … is likely to result in more children being victimized by failing to address the root cause of bullying, violence, and harassment in the first place. It’s yet another attempt to send more kids to private school using taxpayer-funded vouchers under the guise of protecting victims.” – Stephanie Kunkel, Florida Education Association.
Look no further than Florida, where pro-voucher advocates are moving a bill through the state legislature that would allow parents of bullied students to apply for a private school voucher. The Hope Scholarship program, as it’s called, would divert up to $40 million annually from the state budget.
Why not take that money and spend it on anti-bullying programs? That’s what Jacksonville parent Marie-Claire Leman would like to know.
“Frankly, we’re just not falling for this one. We don’t believe it’s about bullying. We believe its a thinly-veiled attempt to expand the source of funding for vouchers and to further privatize education.”
Even as an anti-bullying measure, the bill falls far short because it lets a bullied student transfer but leaves the bully in place at a school where he or she could victimize more students. Furthermore, bullying occurs in public and private schools. But unlike public schools, Florida’s private schools are not “legally required to have anti-bullying or harassment policies and procedures in place,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
“This bill, while attempting to help victims, is likely to result in more children being victimized by failing to address the root cause of bullying, violence, and harassment in the first place,” Stephanie Kunkel, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, told The Orlando Sentinel.
“It’s yet another attempt to send more kids to private school using taxpayer-funded vouchers under the guise of protecting victims.”
It’s too soon to tell if pro-voucher lawmakers in other states will try to emulate this strategy, says David Sciarra, but the Florida bill, if successful, may send a strong signal.
“It’s one to watch, because Florida often leads the way on school privatization.”
“Voucher for the Rich”
Last summer, Betsy DeVos’ plan to expand school vouchers nationwide was dealt a major setback when a U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee chose not to fund the $20 billion program.
Six months later, however, DeVos’ federal voucher plan was given a new lease on life, although in a diminished form. A late-night amendment was inserted into the GOP tax bill that will allow families to set aside up to $10,000 annually from 529 college savings plans offered by states into a tax-free account for K-12 private school tuition and other expenses.
States stand to lose significant revenue for schools and other critical public services from the 529 extension, which amounts to little more than a “voucher for the rich,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “It will allow wealthy families to stash away money for private school, and will hurt students and neighborhood public schools.”
A 2013 General Accounting Office (GAO) report found that less than 3 percent of families participated in 529 plans and those families were usually among the most affluent Americans.