Are Vouchers Dead?

When news broke Tuesday that the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s voucher system, which uses public dollars to pay for low-income students to go to private schools, the fight over vouchers made its way back into the headlines. The Louisiana program, pushed hard and publicly by Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, offers any low-income child in the state, regardless of what public school they would attend, tuition assistance at private schools. It’s something liberals fear will become commonplace in other states in the future if conservative lawmakers get their way on education policy.

Yet conservatives have been dominating legislatures since 2010 and there has been little success in creating voucher programs. Louisiana is one of only two states with such a broad program in place. After the 2010 Tea Party wave there was “a big spike in the number of states considering voucher legislation,” says Josh Cunningham, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). But most of those states didn’t actually pass any bills. Since 2010, four states have created new voucher programs. This year alone, according to NCSL, voucher bills have failed in seven states. While vouchers were once a key piece of the school choice agenda, they now play second fiddle to more popular education reform policies. But are they dead?

“Charter schools are the main thing at this point in time,” says William J. Mathis, managing director at the National Education Policy Center, which studies educational policy. “Vouchers just never seemed to grab traction.”

For instance, even Texas, certainly a conservative bastion, can’t get very far with vouchers. Even after the governor, lieutenant governor and the Senate Education Committee chair, all of whom are Republican, announced their determination to pass a voucher-style bill, the GOP-dominated House still defied them by passing a measure banning the use of public dollars for private schools. The measure, an amendment to the budget bill, passed 103-43—overwhelmingly and with bipartisan support.

Leslie Hiner, the vice president of programs and state relations at the pro-voucher Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, concedes that legislatures don’t warm to voucher policies as easily as they do to charters. While “vouchers have always been the heart of the school choice movement,” she says, in more recent years groups pushing for charter schools have had the ears of lawmakers. The messaging is easier. When you talk about charters “you’re talking about schools,” she says. “When you talk about vouchers you talking about funding an individual child to go to a school chosen by their parents.”

Among the existing voucher programs, most aren’t for the general population. Of the 12 states with voucher plans, only four states and the District of Columbia offer voucher programs to low-income students or students in failing schools. The rest offer programs specifically designed for special needs students or kids living in rural areas that lack a nearby public school. This year, Mississippi and Utah have passed bills amending their voucher programs, but both remain strictly for children with special needs.

Special needs and rural voucher programs don’t cause political fireworks; it’s the programs designed to offer private school tuition for the general population that do. For years, as advocates have debated the policy, the same arguments have been made. Those who like vouchers usually argue that such programs level the playing field—low-income students can have the same educational options as their wealthier counterparts. That means, ideally, that no kids get stuck in bad schools. There’s also the cost-saving argument that by sending kids to private schools, the state won’t have to pay as much, since private school tuition is usually less than the per-pupil costs of funding in public schools.

Meanwhile, voucher opponents focus on the potential losses to public schools such policies threaten. Each time a student leaves with a voucher, schools lose the funding they would otherwise have gotten. Yet their costs—for things like salaries and infrastructure—don’t go down because usually only a handful of kids leave.  (Supporters respond that enrollments fluctuate anyhow and that vouchers shouldn’t change the calculus much.) Conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council have long supported vouchers as yet another way to privatize previously public institutions. Furthermore, private schools are often religiously affiliated, which means that through vouchers, public dollars can wind up supporting church-based institutions. This was a major point of contention in Louisiana, where one activist drew considerable attention to the program by identifying 19 of the 119 schools participating in the voucher program as having various anti-science curriculums. According to Mathis, top-notch private schools often aren’t interested in participating in voucher programs, so voucher programs end up supporting sketchier alternatives. On top of all this, opponents of vouchers argue that the policy doesn't improve educational outcomes or performance. 

Louisiana’s public schools have long struggled. In 2011, nearly one-third of students weren’t performing at what state officials deemed a “basic” level and 44 percent of schools received a failing grade. Voucher advocates made the same “leveling the playing field for poor and rich kids“ argument for the policy that has been made for years. In 2008, Jindal successfully backed a voucher program for New Orleans, and last year, the legislature expanded it statewide, though it has never been enacted on a particularly large scale. It currently has fewer than 5,000 participating students, and is supposed to be expanded to service 8,000 students in September—out of 700,000 total students in the state’s public schools.

While voucher advocates have argued the policy change has brought better results, Mathis says the Louisiana vouchers program is “good example of people marketing a failure as a success.”

At a press conference, Jindal promised that vouchers would continue. Because the court took issue with the funding structure, as well the process by which the measure was passed, Jindal emphasized that the program itself remained solid—and promised to find the funding elsewhere, calling that a “fairly simple fix.”

Few others were as calm about the court decision. In a statement, the American Federation of Teachers called it a “stinging rebuke of Gov. Jindal’s agenda to strip Louisiana public schools of the resources they desperately need.” Meanwhile, the pro-voucher Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice called the decision “a great injustice to thousands of Louisiana children.”

A brand new poll from the Friedman Foundation, shared with The American Prospect showed 61 percent of parents approved of vouchers, based on a straightforward explanation of the policy.  “People are telling us … ‘We’re not willing to take what we’re given by the government,” explains Hiner. “Our child is worth more than that.” The poll, which surveyed close to equal numbers of Democrats, Republicans and independents, showed 45 percent would choose to send their child to a private school, while 34 said they’d pick a “regular public school.”

Mathis, along with many who oppose vouchers, are skeptical of the results, noting that the way the question is framed can determine the results.

Whatever public opinion may be, vouchers have not gotten backing at the ballot box. Since 1972, no state has successfully passed a voucher bill through public referenda, despite attempts in numerous states. 

Whether or not the vouchers fight begins to die down, “school choice” battles will likely continue to rage.  Most common are disputes over expanding charter schools or expanding online education. There is also debate over private school tuition tax credits, which allow individuals or corporations to designate a portion of their state taxes for private school scholarships. Twelve states already have such programs, including a measure Alabama passed this year. 

But regardless of how hot the fights over vouchers, charters, or private schools get, there’s a key fact that is often overlooked: traditional public schools continue to serve the vast majority of students. That won't be changing any time soon. 


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