- The push to establish or expand private school vouchers has accelerated in 2023.
- Increasingly, these proposals have stripped income limits, allowing even affluent families to apply for taxpayer-funded private school tuition.
- Despite the political headwinds in many states, educators and their unions have aligned with rural lawmakers to defeat these bills.
Public schools everywhere have an important and unique place in their communities, but for rural areas, that role is even more consequential. Schools are more than academic institutions; they provide critical services to students who need them the most. Rural schools are also hubs for community engagement through concerts, theatrical productions, and sports. Often, they are a town’s largest employer.
“At our school, we offer a lot, because our community expects a lot,” says Steve Peterson, a teacher in Decorah, a town in northeastern Iowa. “They want good programs—academic, but also extra-curricular opportunities.”
Peterson, his colleagues, and many parents, however, are looking ahead to the next school year and beyond with unease and trepidation.
In January, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law one of the broadest school voucher programs in the nation. Beginning in 2023-24, the state will begin shifting hundreds of millions of dollars in education funding to religious and private schools. Voucher legislation has been passed or is being considered in more than a dozen states this year.
The strength and standing of rural schools will be tested. How will they prevent a drop in enrollments? How can they continue to provide the breadth of services to every student? How will an exodus of educators be stemmed?
“The impact is not clear yet, but I fear the short answer,” says Peterson, “is you don’t.”
In previous years, educators and their unions in Iowa helped defeat voucher proposals, thanks in part to steadfast opposition from enough rural lawmakers who understood the devastating impact these schemes would have on area public schools.
The political terrain has since shifted quite dramatically, says Samuel E. Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
“Vouchers so far have had little impact in rural areas of the country," he explains. “But there’s no question about their new momentum—and the impact on rural schools and their communities could be grim. As the mayor of Woodbine, Iowa, told me several years ago, ‘If you lose your school, you lose your town.’”
The High Cost of Vouchers
Even before the recent surge of voucher legislation, the amount of public taxpayer dollars being redirected to private school tuition has been running at alarming levels.
Abrams and Steven Koutzvalis, a classroom teacher and education policy researcher, analyzed voucher programs’ fiscal impact in a 2023 report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Education Law Center.
In each of the seven states highlighted in the report— Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin—expenditures of public funds on voucher programs increased dramatically from 2008 to 2019. Furthermore, the portion of state gross domestic product allocated to K-12 public education decreased, even though public school enrollment grew over the same period.
The report's findings, said Jessica Levin, deputy litigation director at Education Law Center, “throws into stark relief a fact that education privatizers want to hide: the fiscal consequences of private school voucher programs are substantial.”
Siphoning off valuable funds from public schools is far from the only cost school vouchers inflict. Most private schools that participate in these programs have minimum, if any, standards of accountability and do not open their doors to all students. In addition, there is scant evidence that voucher programs produce any improvement in student academic achievement.
Private schools that accept vouchers often deny students federal civil rights protections available to them in public schools. Some participating schools impose religious "litmus test" for admission and many have policies that allow discrimination against LGBTQ+ students and those with disabilities.
Vouchers, says Karen Lauritzen, the 2023 Idaho Teacher of the Year, also do not generate the kind of “choice” vulnerable students need, especially those in rural areas. "I'm talking about free and reduced lunch, transportation, behavioral and other specialized services services—these are important programs students rely on for their education.”
Welfare for Wealthy Families
Public opinion remains steadfast in opposition to vouchers, even in politically conservative states. So why the resurgence?
Abrams points to a variety of factors. In a handful of states, the 2022 elections consolidated support for school privatization agenda in many states. Also, manufactured outrage over classroom curriculum and library books has further emboldened politicians intent on undermining public education.
Perhaps most important, however, are two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings——Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue in 2020 and Carson v. Makin in 2022—that opened the door for states to begin directing taxpayer funds to private and religious schools.
Voucher proponents have also been quite successful in rebranding and repackaging a widely unpopular idea.
“Once the term 'school voucher' began to leave a bad taste in people's mouths,” explains Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), “They started calling them something else.”
Straightforward voucher proposals soon became education savings accounts (ESA) and tuition tax credits. Under an ESA, a portion of 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. Tuition tax credits incentivize individuals and corporations to donate to non-profit organizations, which in turn bundle the funds and disburse them as private school vouchers. The donors receive a dollar-to-dollar tax credit in return.
The narrative around who is supposed to benefit also changed, says Bishop. “When vouchers first started, it was about poor kids. Now, they think that kids who are already in private school should get funding too.”
OEA has been lobbying against a voucher/tax credit proposal that will be available to all Oklahomans, regardless of income.
Similarly, the new voucher law in Iowa will lift all income caps after three years, as it diverts over $900 million in taxpayer funds.
States continue to push ESAs, but tuition tax credits have become increasingly popular. These policies are now on the books in 23 states.
“State voucher tax credits are among the most significant tools eroding the public education system and propping up private schools,” says Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).
According to a recent ITEP analysis of tax credits in three states, families with incomes of over $200,000 are overwhelmingly the ones using these credits, which enable them to opt out of paying tax to public coffers.
“These voucher schemes are just welfare programs for wealthy parents in metropolitan areas, and they are killing rural schools," says Erika Wright, a public school parent and founder of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition. “Wealthier families are asking lower income rural Oklahomans to foot the bill to send their kids to private schools. They’re coming behind our back to suck funding out of our community schools that are already underfunded.”
Saying No to Vouchers
The opposition to vouchers in Idaho stems not only from the fact that they subsidize private school education. The prospect of raising local levies and bonds to pay for programs and educators lost due to declining enrollments has hardened resistance. When vouchers reached rural counties in Wisconsin, local property taxpayers had to pick up the tab when programs began to disappear.
The Idaho Education Association (IEA) made sure rural lawmakers and their constituents were aware of this when several voucher bills—most packaged as education savings accounts—were introduced in the legislature in January.
“There's a very close connection between property taxes and schools in our state, so it's an issue that is felt very viscerally by our rural residents," said IEA Political Director Chris Parri. “When we talk about who vouchers actually serve, the feeling among many here was ‘hey, we're barely funding our own schools, why would we pursue this weird voucher thing that wouldn't work here anyway.’”
As in other rural states, voucher proposals had consistently run aground in Idaho, but educators were ready to mobilize as the 2023 legislative session approached. Building momentum early, Parri said, was going to be critical.
“We saw the big voucher wave around the country, so we knew these bills were coming. We immediately began reaching out to those moderates who had been anti-voucher in the past, facilitating conversations between these lawmakers and our members in their districts. Our members really stepped up to fight these bills."
Idaho educators weren't going to allow pro-voucher advocates define what was and was not a voucher. Any proposal—whether you call it an ESA or tuition tax credit— that takes public dollars out of public schools and puts it toward private school tuition is a voucher.
“We also had to remind them that our state is 51st in education funding,” said teacher Karen Lauritzen. “You can't starve education here anymore. We're already trying to more with less.”
Seven voucher bills in all—the last one in the form of a tax credit—were introduced in the legislature. One by one, thanks largely to the relentless advocacy of IEA members, they went down to defeat.
Parri recalls a conversation with a legislator who had an anti-public education voting record, who came around to opposing the voucher bills. “He told us, ‘Schools are the center of my community and anything that threatens the integrity of those schools I can’t support.’”
The Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) also a secured a tremendous victory in 2023 when the Georgia House of Representatives defeated a voucher bill that would have provided a $6,500 private school tuition subsidy.
And in Texas, educators mobilized against a voucher proposal that went down to defeat in the Texas House in March. Enough GOP lawmakers in rural areas recognized that the education savings accounts were little more than a "private-school subsidy or entitlement program for the well-to-do at everyone else’s expense and with no public accountability," said Ovidia Molina, president of the Texas State Teachers Association. Encouraged by Gov. Gregg Abbott, however, pro-voucher lawmakers have not given up on the bill.
Before It’s Too Late
Educators across the nation understand better than anyone never to take lightly the determination and deep pockets of school privatization advocates.
“They'll be back next year, and they'll come back hard," said Parri. “What we will see next in Idaho are vouchers as tax credits. That'll be their focus.”
In Iowa, teacher Steve Peterson is encouraged by the public's opposition to vouchers and says public education activists in his state must focus on preventing an expansion of the recently signed voucher law.
“We must continue to engage community members in new and better ways,” Peterson said. “Because these are community issues. They can't be seen strictly as an educator or school board issue. On a gut feeling, most people don’t want vouchers, but many aren’t really aware of what it means for schools until it happens.”
Erika Wright sees the same predicament in Oklahoma.
“People don't know what they don't know, unfortunately. So many people in my state love public education. We have to reach them and make sure they understand the consequences," she said. "Otherwise, vouchers will be approved. We'll start seeing the impact in a few years: Schools will start to shut down, jobs will be lost, communities will be drained. I fear that by then it just may be too late.”