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What’s Ahead for Private School Choice Policy in 2019?

Vouchers and voucher-like programs may grow in some states, face pushback elsewhere.

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Arizona voters in November gave a decisive thumbs down to a ballot measure that sought to expand a voucher-like program in that state. The same voters, however, opted by a wide margin to re-elect Republican Gov. Doug Ducey — a champion of private school choice who threw his support behind the failed referendum.

And so it goes. For education overall, the 2018 election outcomes revealed a case of seeming contradictions, as we reported right after the election.

So, what’s next for private school choice policy in 2019? The state level is where the main action is expected. And in 20 states, the governor’s mansion has a new occupant this year.

In places like Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, where new Republican governors replace retiring GOP leaders, efforts to expand private school choice appear likely. Florida in 2018 added one more choice initiative to its growing list, the Hope Scholarship program, which provides vouchers for students who are victims of bullying, harassment, physical attack or other such incidents.

On the flip side, in places like Illinois, Nevada, and Wisconsin, new Democratic governors (who replace Republicans) may seek to curtail or abolish voucher programs, or impose new regulations on them.

The new Illinois governor, Democrat J.B. Pritzker, has been sharply critical of a $75 million program of private school scholarships created in 2017. The Illinois measure was championed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who lost to Pritzker in November.

“I think diverting money away from public schools right now to private-tuition tax credits seems like a really bad idea,” Pritzker said shortly after winning the Democratic nomination last spring, as the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

The Illinois program allows taxpayers to donate a share of the state taxes they owe, as reporter Linda Lutton of WBEZ explained in an in-depth September 2018 story. More than 5,600 students received a scholarship during the inaugural year, she said.

The scholarships “have been talked about as a way to help low-income students go to schools they couldn’t otherwise afford,” Lutton explained. “But WBEZ has found that many of the scholarship recipients were already in private schools, and so far, 28 percent would not be considered low-income.”

A ‘Step in the Right Direction’?

At the federal level, the 2018 election delivered Democrats a new majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, making it unlikely that the Trump administration will make headway on vouchers.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has made school choice, including vouchers, a high priority, but has struggled to get traction on the issue, even when Republicans controlled both the House and Senate. A minor exception is embedded in the GOP tax overhaul in 2017. That legislation contains a change to tax policy on 529 savings plans, so that families can make tax-free withdrawals of savings not just for college costs, but also K-12 expenses for public or private schools, including religious ones.

Writing about this change recently, Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa noted: “Shortly before Trump signed the tax bill, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called the 529 shift a ‘step in the right direction,’ but also acknowledged that it might not do much to help families that don’t have much money to set aside in the first place.”

The outcome of state elections in 2018 offers “a mixed bag” on private school choice, said Robert Enlow, the president of EdChoice, a national advocacy group that promotes such policies.

EdChoice produced an analysis of where newly elected or re-elected governors stand, based on public and campaign statements.

The results? Sixteen governors are listed as supporters of private school choice policy (all Republicans), 12 opposed (all but one are Democrats), and eight were deemed “unclear” in their stance (a mix of Republicans and Democrats).

Changes in the composition of state legislatures also will affect the political climate for vouchers. In Texas, Republicans still hold the governorship and a majority in the legislature, but Democratic gains in legislative seats mean an expected push by conservative lawmakers for vouchers “seems destined for the back burner,” reported Julie Chang of the Austin American Statesman.

Enlow pointed to Iowa as another example. “You saw in Iowa a governor who supports choice [win] and a stronger majority in the Senate, but a loss in the House.”

The ‘Holy Grail’ for Voucher Proponents

Enlow predicts one particular flavor of private school choice policy will gain the most momentum in the future. “Everyone is moving toward the policy concept of education savings accounts,” he said. “It’s a program that has broad application, … and it could be administered in an easier way over time.”

ESAs are really a “hybrid voucher program,” Education Week reporter Arianna Prothero recently explained in a blog post, since private school tuition is just one of numerous allowable expenses.

“Making all students eligible for education savings accounts is sort of a Holy Grail to voucher proponents, given that ESAs give parents near-total control over how money is spent on their child’s education,” she wrote.

The Arizona ballot measure, Proposition 305, would have vastly expanded eligibility for ESAs, with no income limits for participating families. These accounts allow families to use some portion of their children’s state school funding allotment for private school tuition, textbooks for homeschooling, tutoring, and other educational purposes.

“In Arizona, yes they sent [Governor] Ducey back, but they also completely rejected the largest expansion of a bad voucher program,” said Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, during an EWA event right after the 2018 election. “They tried so hard to put lipstick on that pig.”

That said, there were complicating factors. For starters, the Arizona measure divided voucher proponents, amid concerns that as crafted it would have capped the number of participants at 30,000. In addition, the Arizona Republic reported a month before the election that voters appeared “deeply confused by the ballot language of Proposition 305” and what it actually meant.

Maggie Garrett, the co-chair of the National Coalition for Public Education, an anti-voucher advocacy group, said she saw the election results in states such as Wisconsin and Arizona as reflecting a “pushback on privatizing” education. In Arizona, she said, “that was a true grassroots effort against pretty powerful” interests advocating the voucher expansion.

In Wisconsin, new Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat and the former state schools chief, has said he would seek to repeal voucher programs, but the solid GOP majorities in the state legislative chamber make that all but impossible to deliver on.

Alan Borsuk, a senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University, predicts the “split government” in the state will create a “deadlock” over the issue, though he said the new governor could well constrain the growth of some of the more recently enacted of Wisconsin’s voucher programs, including a statewide voucher and a voucher initiative for students with disabilities.

Teacher Requirements, Nondiscrimination Provisions

Looking across states, Garrett said that although choice programs might well continue in states with new Democratic governors, other steps may occur such as protecting against the loss of funds to public schools, or imposing new accountability provisions.

“It depends on the state, but teacher [qualification] requirements, curriculum requirements, nondiscrimination provisions” are likely, she said. “In some cases, it’s tough to know where the money is going and what the [voucher] schools are doing with the money.”

In Florida, for example, the Orlando Sentinel produced an investigative series, “Schools Without Rules,” that shined a spotlight on questionable practices in some voucher schools, such as hiring teachers who lack college degrees, falsifying health and safety records, and using textbooks that “denounce evolution as untrue” and “downplay the horrors of slavery.”

Both the volume and reach of private school choice programs have grown dramatically over the past two decades, from four programs in four states in 1999 to 54 programs in 26 states plus the District of Columbia, said Adam Peshek, the vice president for advocacy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national advocacy group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Peshek took stock of the issue during a post-election panel in November as part of the group’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. By his count, these programs collectively serve about 487,000 students. He expects the total to eclipse 500,000 in 2019.

Like Enlow of EdChoice, Peshek sees education savings accounts as an especially promising pathway, given their flexibility to meet the various educational needs of families, not simply tuition to attend a school full-time. One example he cited was “hybrid homeschooling,” where children may seek to attend school part-time or enroll in an online class.

“That reflects … the future of education,” he said.

Vouchers for Whom?

Peshek sees a need, and increased interest among policymakers, for choice programs that serve middle-income families.

“For years, there has been this existential battle,” he said. “Should school choice [programs] be for low-income students or for all students?”

Peshek said the share of middle-income families attending private schools has declined over time, and should be addressed. “This isn’t talking about the wealthy getting more, but real working-class individuals who are working two jobs,” he said.

Voucher critics express deep reservations about expanding eligibility.

“The original goal of these programs was to provide opportunities for students of color, low-income students,” said Preston Green III, an education professor at the University of Connecticut, during EWA’s 2018 National Seminar, and “targeted to hopefully not create too much stress on the traditional school systems.” (Watch the video of the panel here.)

Green said he is especially troubled by “vouchers 2.0 and 3.0.” Green also has recently highlighted concerns that in voucher-style programs, civil rights protections typically do not follow children from public to private schools.

Howard Fuller, a professor at Marquette University who helped to launch the Milwaukee voucher program in 1990, said he wrestles with the evolution of choice policy. He recalled early conversations about the Milwaukee program.

“Back then, there were people who were clear that they were only supporting [vouchers] for poor children to open the door” on the issue, he said. “Once something like this gets started, unfortunately, people pick it up do things with it that you never intended.”

Fuller added, “It becomes difficult for someone who does support parent choice to be supportive of certain things that I think are not in the interests of the low-income and working-class people that I got in this struggle to fight for in the first place.”