Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva talk about the LEARNS Act and what it means for K-12 education in Arkansas at an invitation-only town hall in El Dorado on June 6, 2023. (Randall Lee/Courtesy of the Governor’s Press Office)
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which parents and educators reevaluated their relationship with public schools, lawmakers across the country have eagerly embraced state-funded voucher programs, giving public money to students to attend private schools.
So far this year, at least 10 states have implemented or expanded programs for vouchers and other state private education subsidies, according to Chalkboard Review, an education-focused website. The states are: Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah, along with a pilot program in Tennessee.
But in North Dakota, the Republican governor vetoed such a plan, and bills failed in California, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Texas and Virginia.
There are currently voucher and similar programs in 32 states and the District of Columbia, according to EdChoice, a free-market organization that promotes public money for private education. Voucher programs often are characterized in state legislation as “scholarship programs,” but whatever the name, the policies result in a transfer of public money to private institutions. Some even subsidize home-schooling.
Some states are establishing what they call “education savings accounts.” The state puts money in such accounts for every student under 18, allowing parents to spend it on public, private, religious or home-schooling costs.
Some programs have seen extensive growth: Indiana’s private school voucher program grew by 20% in the past school year, its largest boost in a decade. And in Arizona, a voucher program projected to cost $65 million in the coming school year is now estimated at more than $900 million because of an expected spike in applicants.
Some of the Republicans pushing the programs claim broad public support for them. But recent polls suggest that people’s opinions shift depending on the specific details of the program, the phrasing of the questions and who is asking them.
Polls funded by pro-voucher advocacy groups or state Republican parties show the public in many states favoring them. Polls commissioned by Democratic-leaning teachers unions often show the public opposed.
Meanwhile, a Reuters/Ipsos poll in March found that 36% of respondents supported vouchers and 51% opposed them when they were asked if they supported “[l]aws allowing government money to send students to private and religious schools, even if it reduces money for public schools.”
“It’s going to continue to be a real focus in the legislative process in a lot of places for some time to come,” said Norín Dollard, senior policy analyst at the Florida Policy Institute, a progressive think tank that opposes vouchers.
Several Republican-dominated states pushed ahead with voucher programs this year.
Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running for president, signed a bill in March establishing a voucher program for any family, regardless of income. The allocation per student is expected to be about $8,000 a year — more than some private schools were charging for annual tuition.
As a result, some private schools raised their prices. At least one Catholic school, after deciding to raise tuition, reversed course in the face of parents’ objections when the Tampa Bay Times reported the decision. The newspaper reported some other schools are sticking with the decision to raise tuition, but did not name them.
Dollard said she did not know which schools in Florida were moving forward with plans to increase their rates.
But she said in a phone interview that her group would continue to oppose the voucher system because, she argues, many schools in Florida don’t have enough money now. According to one recent analysis, Florida ranks 44th among the states in per-pupil spending.
“If those schools had been properly funded to begin with, we might not be in the situation where students are inclined to leave public schools,” she said. “Public schools serve the public good.”
An annual Gallup poll on education trends shows 55% of respondents last year were unhappy with K-12 education in the United States, up from 48% in 2020.
Robert Enlow, president of EdChoice, said the organization thinks it’s “fair and more equitable for money to follow families than to have the money follow one type of school. [Families] shouldn’t have to pay twice, once in taxes and once in tuition. Why is that fair?”
In Iowa, more than 17,500 parents already have applied to join the state’s new education savings accounts, thousands more than state officials had budgeted for, according to the Des Moines Register. Families have until the end of June to sign up; it’s unclear how the state will fund all the applicants.
Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ success in pushing the school choice program through the legislature came arguably as a result of her work last fall to elect new, pro-voucher Republican lawmakers after a voucher bill had previously failed. As was the case in Florida, several private religious schools in Iowa raised their tuition after the measure there passed.
In Utah, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox in January signed into law a measure that will spend $42 million to set up a statewide universal voucher program. The law gives out $8,000 per student to pay private school tuition. The state’s largest teachers union, the Utah Education Association, said it would challenge the law in court.
Most of the efforts to set up or expand voucher programs have come in conservative-led states. But some supporters are liberal groups representing underserved communities who are fed up with low-performing public schools.
In Maryland, Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat and the state’s first Black governor, faced a barrage of criticism earlier this year when he called for cutting back the state’s small voucher program for some underprivileged kids. Some of the criticism came from liberal Black organizations in Baltimore upset over decades of public school deficiencies in the city and parents who wanted their kids to be afforded something different.
Writing in the Baltimore Afro-American, Ralph E. Moore Jr., a longtime Baltimore educator and activist, supported students and others who descended on Annapolis to protest the governor’s proposal.
“Wouldn’t it be fair to continue to let some low-income children have an otherwise unreachable private school experience?” he wrote. “And even though private educational institutions do not pay state (property or sales) taxes, their operations reduce the number of children that state government would be responsible for educating by federal and state law.”
Rather than cut the program by $2 million as the governor proposed, the Maryland legislature, in a compromise, added $1 million back as part of the state’s budget.
Despite the defeat, Gov. Moore is not giving up on his plan to cut back on the program.
“I still believe that public funding should go to public education,” he said in an email to Stateline. “I respect the General Assembly’s position on providing more funding for the program in the FY23 budget.”
American Federation of Teachers-Maryland President Kenya Campbell, in an email to Stateline, supported the governor’s efforts, calling the voucher program, known as BOOST, “unproven, discriminatory and wasteful.”
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