By Jessica Levin
In the rapidly evolving world of education privatization, school voucher programs have taken on many monikers. But defenders of public education can’t allow voucher programs and their well-established problems to hide behind cleverly crafted and deceiving labels.
Opinion research clearly demonstrates that the public opposes school vouchers. The long-running PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools found in 2017 that a majority of respondents opposed the use of public funds to send students to private schools, and that majority grew when religious schools were explicitly included.
The Executive Summary of the poll results states, “The more Americans know about how voucher programs work, the less likely they are to support them or to say they’d participate in them.”
Because public opinion is staunchly opposed to the privatization of public education, voucher proponents have attempted to rebrand their product. Many voucher laws enacted in recent years create Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs are taxpayer funds that parents can use to pay for private education expenses. Arizona’s large voucher program uses ESAs, as did the expansive Nevada voucher law struck down by that state’s high court.
ESAs are not the only government programs that pay for private education expenses. “Tax credit scholarship” programs allow individuals and corporations to receive tax breaks if they donate money to entities providing vouchers to private schools. And most recently, Congress amended the tax code to allow 529 college savings accounts to be used on private K-12 education expenses. But let’s stick to ESAs for now.
ESA programs can be even more insidious than “traditional” vouchers. In general, the original wave of school vouchers could be used only to pay for private school tuition. But ESAs can be used for a dizzying array of private education expenses, including tutoring, supplies, and, in some cases, homeschooling.
This greatly increases the potential for fraud, as demonstrated by a 2016 state audit of Arizona’s ESA program, which uncovered numerous instances of improper purchases with state funds that were never recovered. The broad range of permissible expenses also means there is even less accountability than with traditional vouchers. Taxpayers cannot be sure their money is being spent on effective educational programs for students who no longer attend public schools. And students with disabilities who accept voucher money give up many of their education rights and protections under federal law.
Most importantly, these and other forms of vouchers siphon desperately needed public funds from public schools. Many states with existing or proposed voucher programs have public education systems that are already underfunded and under-resourced, and therefore unable to provide the educational opportunities guaranteed by their state constitutions. States should focus on adequately funding public schools that are open to and obligated to serve all students and accountable for the quality of education they provide.
It is crucial that we understand attempts to obscure the fact that ESAs are vouchers, with all the attendant concerns. A voucher by any other name is still a voucher. And the consequences for students—those using vouchers and those who remain in underfunded public schools—are anything but sweet.
Jessica Levin is an attorney at Education Law Center
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