Carrying Betsy DeVos' Torch: More States Push Voucher Programs

School voucher programs are gaining momentum around the country.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

In Iowa, a bill that would directly give families over $5,000 to help finance the cost of private school is quickly making its way through the legislature. In Georgia, lawmakers introduced a bill that would give families savings accounts with money to use on private school tuition. In Florida, Republicans are set to push new legislation that would expand the state’s already-vast network of publicly funded private school scholarships.

In the first few weeks of 2021, state legislators have introduced a wave of new bills designed to expand or create new voucher, tax credit and education savings account programs. While these programs are often controversial ― eliciting staunch opposition from public school groups and teachers unions ― advocates say they have seen new momentum after a wave of Republican wins in statehouses and a pandemic that has forced millions of schoolchildren to learn from home. So far, new legislation related to private school choice has been introduced in over 15 states during 2021.

Private school choice programs have long been a pet cause of conservatives, and expanding such initiatives was the singular goal of former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos during the Trump administration. While she failed to expand these programs on a federal level despite repeated attempts, they are experiencing a surge at the state level, just weeks after her departure.

“The coronavirus has really opened people’s eyes to the idea of alternatives to the public school system,” said Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice, a group that promotes voucher programs. “I think it’s difficult to underestimate the role COVID has played and the unhappiness with the way traditional public schools responded to it.”

In the past few weeks, McShane says, he has seen bills related to school choice prioritized and moved through state legislature committees at a breakneck speed. At the beginning of the Trump administration, enthusiasm for these programs waned, likely due in part to DeVos’ unpopularity ― an EdChoice survey from that time found that a dip in approval for all school choice programs in 2016 ― but the organization is now finding that “every form of school choice we poll is at its highest level of popularity right now.”

A recent poll found that about 73% of the general population supported voucher programs. In 2016, this number had been at 57%, down from previous polling, according to the group’s data.

In many communities, private schools have been more likely to open in person during the pandemic, and many report seeing higher rates of enrollment, in large part due to parents frustrated with the limitations of remote learning.

“There’s been debate within the school choice movement: Was DeVos or Trump a net positive or net negative? At some point, that kind of debate is academic because I think COVID just completely swamped it,” said McShane.

“The coronavirus has really opened people’s eyes to the idea of alternatives to the public school system. I think it’s difficult to underestimate the role COVID has played and the unhappiness with the way traditional public schools responded to it.”

- Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice

School voucher programs take taxpayer money and directly funnel it to scholarships for families to help them afford private schools. Tax credit programs provide individuals or corporations with tax credits if they donate to organizations that dole out scholarships for private schools. In states with education savings accounts, families are given access to accounts with money to spend on private schools or other education services.

Supporters argue that these programs give students the opportunity to choose and attend the school that works best for them ― an option affluent families always have ― regardless of their own economic circumstances.

Public school advocates and unions have long lamented the influence of these programs, which they frame as a path to privatizing public schools. They argue that such programs funnel needed funds away from public school districts and into private institutions. As students use these scholarships, they take their per-pupil funding from the state with them, even as overhead costs for public schools, which required to serve all students, remain the same. Further, private schools aren’t beholden to the same anti-discrimination rules, academic standards or requirements regarding students with disabilities as public schools, and a vast majority are religious.

About three-quarters of private schools that participate in voucher programs are religious, a previous HuffPost investigation found, with many of them using fundamentalist Christian, anti-science curriculum. Of religious schools that participate in these programs, at least 14% have explicit policies discriminating against LGBTQ students and staff. At least several schools push LGBTQ children to attend conversion therapy, a medically discredited practice that is illegal in over a dozen states, a HuffPost investigation found. In some states, voucher programs have sordid origins: They were used to help white families escape desegregated schools after Brown v. Board of Education.

But amid the pandemic and after a summer Supreme Court ruling that found states couldn’t block religious schools from participating in voucher programs, voucher programs have seen a surge in forward energy, even if the court’s ruling was largely symbolic.

“We’ve been tracking these bills for three years now and this is a completely different level,” said Katherine Dunn, a policy analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s SPLC Action Fund, which is opposed to private school choice programs. “We’re not seeing a lot of bipartisan support for the proposals we’re tracking ― it’s a result of a lot of the gains from Republicans who are pushing these through.”

A new Georgia bill is almost identical to one that was previously proposed in 2019, except it expands eligibility for a new education savings account program to include students whose school districts are not 100% in person. Also eligible are students from lower-income families, students who were adopted out of foster care, students with disabilities, a documented case of bullying, or parents in the military. While the bill failed to make it out of committee in 2019, it “absolutely has more momentum this time around, said Stephen J. Owens, senior education policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

“I think lawmakers are seeing an opportunity; there’s frustration with some parents about how some school openings or closing have gone,” said Owens, whose group opposes these bills.

Owens takes particular issue with the bill’s inclusion of students whose public school district isn’t 100% in-person teaching, noting that it would apply to most kids in the state.

“It’s causing a lot of heartburn among district leaders, as some feel bullied to open in-person, sometimes against the wishes of the parents or teachers or a basic understanding of public health,” he said.

“[DeVos] didn’t care about the pandemic as an issue to be solved, she saw it as an opportunity to jumpstart an agenda that had been going nowhere.”

- Derek Black, professor of law at the University of South Carolina

In Iowa, another school choice bill that is rapidly making its way through the legislature has also drawn the attention of critics. The bill would provide families with children attending low-performing public schools with over $5,000 to send their kids to private schools, and also allow students in schools under court-ordered desegregation plans to transfer to charter schools.

Iowa already has a tax credit program, albeit a small one, but past efforts to expand private school choice in the state have stalled. A recent analysis from the Iowa Legislative Services Agency found that if passed, the program would cost public schools nearly $4 million by its third year — a small fraction of the state’s overall education budget, though critics say they believe the cost will prove higher.

Such a program would not start until the 2022 school year, a time when the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic has hopefully passed and public schools are on a path to normalcy.

Derek Black, professor of law at the University of South Carolina who focuses on education policy, is skeptical that these programs have become any more popular to citizens, despite legislators’ sudden attention. Trump and DeVos may have also had a big hand in pushing Republican legislators to fast-track these bills.

In states where citizens got to vote on such initiatives through public referendums, they’ve been swiftly defeated. In 2018, an Arizona referendum that would have expanded the state’s already-vast voucher program was voted down by a wide margin. And while these programs poll well among parents, Black suspects that’s due to a failure to explain the detrimental impact vouchers could have on public schools or their inability to serve all students. Most parents highly rate the public schools their child attends, polls show.

Associating private school choice with the Trump brand may be helpful in red states, at least in the short-term, where legislators might be still working to display their Trumpian bonafides. Black also wonders if DeVos’ ability to use the pandemic to attack traditional public schools may have been successful.

The passage of these bills may prove to be the former education secretary’s greatest accomplishment, even if she’s no longer in office.

“If there’s anything smart that DeVos ever did, malevolent as well, it was that she didn’t care about the pandemic as an issue to be solved, she saw it as an opportunity to jumpstart an agenda that had been going nowhere,” said Black. “She didn’t achieve much in federal policy change, but we’re turning a blind eye to reality if we don’t admit she did fundamentally change the way we talk about education, the specific terms we use.”

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