• By Terrence Wilson, J.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2023 •
Some policymakers have consistently sought new opportunities to privatize public education since the first voucher program was established in Wisconsin in 1991. This year so far, they have capitalized on frustrations of parents and families with their schools, particularly exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, to advance voucher schemes rather than focusing on actually improving schools using evidence-based strategies and frameworks like IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010).
Additionally, these leaders have exploited cultural grievances about what students are learning about race, gender and sexuality to justify the so-called need for school vouchers.
Voucher schemes are poor ideas for a number of well-researched and documented reasons. These reasons include, but are not limited to, the drain on public school systems that educate the majority of schoolchildren, the ways that vouchers can support schools that discriminate, the evidence showing that vouchers do not improve academic outcomes, the way these programs subsidize affluent families already attending private schools, and the lack of financial and academic accountability in schools receiving vouchers (IDRA, 2023a).
Voucher programs also have a historical root in segregation and exacerbate current patterns of school segregation (Duggins-Clay, 2023). This article outlines this year’s movement on school vouchers across the U.S. South and highlights common themes from jurisdictions that have resisted voucher expansion thus far.
Overall, voucher programs come in three forms: conventional vouchers where students’ families receive a voucher from the state that can be used to pay private school tuition; tax-credit scholarship programs where individuals and corporations can get tax rebates for donating to organizations that give scholarships to students to attend private school; and education savings accounts where the state deposits funds into an account that can be used for various different educational expenses for a select few students.
In 2023, many states sought to either create new voucher programs or expand their current programs. Today, every state in the U.S. South except Texas has some form of voucher program.
Several states enacted some combination of new voucher programs or expansion of current programs through increasing funding caps or expanding eligibility. Current voucher programs were expanded while new voucher programs failed in Alabama and Louisiana. Voucher proponents in Florida and Louisiana were able to increase both eligibility and the funding allocated to their existing programs. South Carolina created a new voucher program without expanding any others, and Arkansas both created a new voucher program and expanded eligibility for its existing voucher.
However, there were several states this year that resisted creating new vouchers or expanding their current voucher systems: Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina (still in session) and Texas. Common arguments that were persuasive in these states included concerns about costs to the public school system and limited usefulness of vouchers for students broadly, particularly in rural areas with few private schools. Regarding costs, voucher program costs vary widely with at least one estimate as high as $4 billion in Florida and another at $1.1 trillion in Texas.
Additionally, advocates were able to develop maps and other data to show the limited usefulness of vouchers. For example, IDRA created a map for Georgia legislators showing that private schools are often concentrated in wealthier, urban areas of states and do not serve rural students well (IDRA, 2023b).
Advocates also successfully highlighted other problems with these programs, including the likelihood to increase discrimination and segregation and the limited evidence that vouchers actually improve student performance (Long, 2023).
Several lessons can be learned from efforts to resist vouchers in 2023. When looking to highlight the problems that vouchers create, IDRA recommends that advocates:
- Highlight the often-exorbitant costs of these programs, particularly if they do not have caps or limited eligibility requirements.
- Challenge the assumptions underlying cost estimates, particularly if they only focus on students leaving public school and going to private school. In reality, current private school families will take advantage of these vouchers if they are available.
- Illustrate the limited reach of vouchers in terms of geography as many private schools do not operate in rural areas.
- Underscore the research showing that vouchers are ineffective at raising academic achievement for those students who receive them.
- Point out the loss of special education services and student protections that public schools provide while private schools are exempt.
- Show how the accountability systems for schools receiving vouchers are often lacking as there are several examples of fraudulent use of vouchers.
- Explain the historical roots of vouchers in segregation and highlight how they exacerbate current racial disparities in education.
By focusing on these arguments, advocates for public schools may be able to slow and hopefully reverse the crusade for privatization of schools. For more in-depth information about the voucher proposals proposed in each state, see our new eBook here.
Duggins-Clay, P. (February 7, 2023). School Segregation through Vouchers – What Policymakers Can Learn from a History of State Efforts to Use Vouchers to Avoid Integration. IDRA Knowledge is Power.
IDRA. (2023a). 5 Reasons Private School Vouchers Would Hurt Students, Infographic.
IDRA. (2023b). Georgia Private Schools – IDRA Map.
Long, D. (June-July 2023). Lawmakers Refuse to Adopt School Vouchers, For Now. IDRA Newsletter.
Robledo Montecel, M., & Goodman, C.L. (2010). Courage to Connect: Quality Schools Action Framework. IDRA.
Terrence Wilson, J.D., is IDRA’s regional policy and community engagement director. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at email@example.com.
[©2023, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2023 edition of the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]