Defeat of a School Voucher Program Reveals Motives Behind the ‘School Choice’ Debate

Yves here. The fact that we’re in a generally busy time, news-wise (geopolitical power and physical struggles, bank panics, Trump in the dock) means that some important stories are not getting the attention they warrant. When, as with school vouchers, a major objective of the exercise is to direct yet more taxpayer funds to private interests, the perps are no doubt delighted to be receiving comparatively little attention.

Yet as this story shows, even in conservative Virginia, legislators appear to regard a bright shiny new voucher scheme called an “education success account” may have been a bit too obvious an exercise in looting to pass muster. This article warns that voucher advocates plan to keep working on state representatives to convert them. If you are in Virginia, please consider contacting your Assemblyman to thank the legislature for turning down House Bill 1508.

By Sandra Jones, who served as an investigative reporter for nearly two decades and has received numerous awards for her broadcast reporting. Produced by Our Schools

When Republicans in the Virginia State Legislature renewed their proposal to enact legislation to create a new school voucher program in the state—previous attempts were vetoed by Democratic governors in 2016 and 2017—they said their effort was to “push to strengthen parental rights and expand educational opportunities,” according to the Virginia Mercury. But when it came time to vote on these proposals in February 2023, a majority of Virginia lawmakers thought otherwise and voted the school choice proposals down.

A bill that Republican lawmakers were especially keen on, House Bill 1508, would have created the Virginia Education Success Account Program, which “would allow parents to set up a savings account funded with state dollars that could be used to cover educational expenses at private schools in Virginia,” the Virginia Mercury reported.

The proposal is an example of a new breed of school choice laws that have been enacted in 10 states so far. The so-called education savings accounts (ESAs) essentially work like school vouchers that have long been a priority for right-wing conservatives and libertarians, according to Our Schools reporter Peter Greene.

Despite the proposals for the new voucher program going down in both the Virginia House and Senate, proponents of the bill are far from discouraged, according to a February 2023 article in the Virginia Mercury. “I think people are still learning and getting their minds around what ESAs are and how they work and making sure that they don’t harm public schools,” said Rachel Adams, director of external affairs for Americans for Prosperity Virginia, a libertarian conservative advocacy group that advocated for the bill. “We’ll be back next year doing the same thing,” she said.

But the reluctance of Virginia lawmakers to go forward with this idea shows where opposition to this form of school choice is coming from and calls into question just who these proposals would create “opportunities” for, and how they would impact local schools that the vast majority of parents choose to send their children to.

A ‘Test-and-Punish System’

For Kathy Beery, a retired educator with Harrisonburg City Public Schools, bringing education savings accounts to Virginia meant the exact opposite of what proponents of the new law said it would result in. “It means that children will not receive the educational opportunities that others will receive in other parts of the state,” she told Our Schools. The “other parts of the state” that Beery referred to are metropolitan areas like Richmond, where education choices are abundant, versus rural communities where education advocates believe that efforts to enact more school choice will harm the local schools they value.

Beery is a member of Virginia Educators United and a strong advocate for public education, especially for parents and kids in rural districts. “For rural communities,” she said, “the schools are the center of community connections. To lose their schools means losing sports, bands, [school] plays, and friendships that support the community.”

Beery, who has been on the front lines in the fight against public school privatization, believes that these proposals could have a detrimental impact on rural schools that are already experiencing financial stress.

“Without the needed resources, students [left in the public school system] will do poorly on state standardized tests [which makes the schools more vulnerable to] takeovers and privatization,” Beery said. She described this as a “test-and-punish system.”

Miles away in the largely rural county of Roanoke, Laura Bowman shares a similar sentiment. “This is a horrifying attempt to undermine not only public schools but [also] the entire teaching profession,” she said. Bowman described supporters of the Virginia Education Success Account Program as “monied interests [who] never let a crisis go to waste, and the recent pandemic is no exception.”

Bowman, who has served as president of the Roanoke County Council of PTAs and chairman of the Roanoke County Public Schools Parent Advisory Council, has spent more than a decade advocating for the health, safety, education, and well-being of children.

She too described Virginia’s school assessment policies as a “test-and-punish” system and added, “The results of those corporate-provided tests—not local assessments, report cards, and graduation rates—are used to give weight to the school choice argument. By focusing on the standardized test scores of students who live in under-resourced communities, the privatizers assert that public schools are the problem, not the circumstances the children in those communities live in.”

Bowman also questioned how widely applicable the new voucher program’s opportunities would be. “I live in a more rural part of Virginia,” she said. “Whether [the voucher is] $5,000 or $6,300, it isn’t going to get a student in the door of my local private schools,” for a variety of reasons (there are fewer local private schools, the cost per student is higher than in a metropolitan area with more existing school options and resources, etc.).

Bowman noted that voucher advocates who acknowledge the cost differences between tuition at high-quality private schools compared to what a voucher would cover are advocating for so-called “microschools” that allow families to pool their voucher money to form a small school with other parents. She countered, “This assumes there are adults who are able to be at home with the kids and who can, one, effectively teach kids essential ideas and skills and, two, ensure that the content is going to be centered on factual information and will help the student succeed post high school.”

While advocates for the voucher program might argue that not all private schools do a disservice to students and their communities, consider the potential harms of scaling up the known worst cases that so far have resulted from a lack of regulatory oversight that guides public schools. In January 2023, Vice broke a shocking story about an Ohio homeschool Telegram channel with “thousands of members” that “openly embraced Nazi ideology and promoted white supremacy, while proudly discouraging parents from letting their white children play with or have any contact with people of any other race. Admins and members use racist, homophobic, and antisemitic slurs without shame, and quote Hitler and other Nazi leaders daily in a channel open to the public.”

If the bill creating the Virginia Education Success Account Program had been successfully passed, would Virginia parents using this neo-Nazi homeschool network be able to have their expenses covered with public tax dollars? It’s not clear.

A Priority for Republican Governors

“Vouchers don’t provide an actual choice for students living in rural areas who have little, if any, access to private schools,” according to the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), a nationwide advocacy group that champions public schools and explicitly opposes school vouchers.

“If students are able to use a voucher, they are generally required to endure long, costly commutes,” NCPE’s website said. “And, vouchers are especially harmful to the public school systems serving large rural areas because the schools are forced to spread the same costs for facilities, transportation, administration, and instruction over a smaller revenue stream.”

The potential negative impacts that new voucher programs may impose on rural schools have significant consequences for the nation’s public education system at large, NCPE’s website noted, because “[m]ore than one in four schools in America are rural and nearly one in five students attend a rural school, which is approximately 8.9 million students.”

Despite warnings from advocates about the dire consequences new voucher programs would have on rural schools, there is a growing “resurgence” in state legislatures for “school choice action,” Education Week reported, especially for enacting new ESAs.

In a January 2023 Education Week article highlighting new ESAs that are expected to roll out in Iowa and Utah, Douglas Harris, director of the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice at Tulane University, said that the programs are enjoying greater popularity because “[t]he term ‘vouchers’ doesn’t poll very well… So they’re just changing the name to make it sound better.”

School voucher programs have become an especially high policy priority for Republican governors, according to the analysis done by FutureEd and The 74, a media outlet that is generally supportive of school choice. An article based on the analysis noted, “the school choice proposals in 15 State of the State addresses nearly all came from Republican governors. The only Democratic governor to broach the subject, Arizona’s Katie Hobbs, pledged to provide more accountability for a broad expansion of education savings accounts that her predecessor pushed through the legislature.”

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott said in February 2023 that he “will be ‘heavily involved’ in the push for an education savings account program this legislative session,” according to the Texas Tribune. The article noted, “Similar proposals have typically met resistance from a coalition of Democrats and rural GOP lawmakers.” Abbott, however, opted to cherry-pick his constituents’ opinions, saying, “Among Republican rural voters, about 80 percent support this.”

There has been no shortage of controversies surrounding the school choice debate, and the controversies surrounding these proposals are not going away.

One firefight that recently flared came from Utah where a prominent lobbyist, Allison Sorensen, executive director of Kaysville-based Education Opportunity for Every Child, who is helping to lead the effort to enact a new ESA program in that state, “was recorded saying she wants to ‘destroy public education,’” according to KUTV. She later apologized for her remarks, but public education proponents, including education historian Diane Ravitch, called the comment an example of voucher proponents saying “the quiet part out loud.”

‘Communities With No Schools’

School choice proponents have confidence that their calls for ESAs will win over lawmakers, but opposition to these programs is not withering—even among Republicans. In Idaho, a Freedom in Education Savings Accounts bill that was under consideration in the legislature was ultimately defeated in the Senate. “Most Senate Republicans opposed the bill,” the Idaho Statesman reported.

Proponents of public education continue to warn that with more resources going to ESAs and other kinds of voucher programs, there will be fewer dollars to fund community public schools, especially in rural and under-resourced communities that constantly struggle to maintain service.

“If the school choice movement has its way, and the marketplace is the only driver of schooling, there may be communities with no schools because no one is interested in operating a school in that community,” said Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. “Or, it may be that the only school is a religious school, so if you want a secular school for your child, you will be out of luck.”

“Remember, private schools choose students,” Burris added. “Many of these schools do not enroll students who are LGBTQ+ or who have special needs. Parents may find they have no school options at all other than homeschooling or online schools. We can see how this story ends. Unfortunately, too few are paying attention,” she said.

Back in Virginia, Bowman is not alone in her fight for public schools.

“Vouchers take money out of the budget [meant] for public schools and route it to various recipients that include private schools and homeschooling businesses,” the Virginia Public Education Partners, a grassroots group that opposes school privatization, said in a statement sent to Our Schools. “So, public schools have less opportunity to address teacher and bus driver shortages, school maintenance, overcrowding, mental health, and safe buildings.”

“Public schools are meant to create intelligent, responsible, civically engaged citizens,” said Bowman. “They’re often the hearts of our communities, especially in rural areas of the nation. Families, faculty members, and the community regularly come together for school sporting events and school concerts,” she added. “I’d hate to see the positive community spirit surrounding my neighborhood public schools erode under misguided school voucher laws.”

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    1. NarrativeMassagersInc

      And its becoming a much larger part of childhood education in recent years and not just among “the right”.

      This article has all the hallmarks of liberal storytelling: it has the greedy Republican legislators backed by moneyed interests, the poor rural children being predated upon, and of course, the scare story about Nazi indoctrination. And I’m not saying there isn’t truth to the stories. But of course they tell a skewed story that no one is interested in hearing another aspect of and that relies on the same lazy tropes all liberal storytelling relies upon.

      On the right they tell stories of children being indoctrinated in what, to them, appears to be an agenda of not just acceptance of homosexuality but wholesale adoption of a protected status for “trans” people and outright grooming of children for this lifestyle. And there are many videos of blue-haired teachers saying exactly that. Many see public schools as liberal indoctrination centers for their children and they see special treatment all around for the new protected classes and their dubious behaviors: from antifa to the non-binary thing, they see a government out of control and are terrified their kids will be brain-washed into thinking they’re trans and the state will take them away if the parents protest. There have been actual cases of this going on.

      And of course the “school choice” predators are there to provide a “solution”, and in some cases perhaps it is. If we don’t want these programs to succeed we can’t just pretend these things aren’t going on.

      1. mrsyk

        Sadly, too true. An excellent comment worth exploring. Cooption and weaponization are the tools of team blue. Xenophobia and the right to hate arm the starboard column. Both sides agree to underfund the battleground. There’s profits to be made.

      2. Stephanie

        Re: school choice: In Minneapolis/St. Paul at least, the charter schools I’m familiar with tend to fall into two categories: 1) language-immersion/Montessori/other specialty academic philosophy schools favored by highly educated parents looking to send their kids to elite colleges or 2) schools that market themselves to specific minority communities promoting bi-literacy (family language of origin + English) or the idea that kids will be taught according to traditional values from the parents’ country-of-origin; this latter group also includes schools that cater to parents who, a generation or two ago, would have sent their kids to their parish schools.

        So at least where I’m at, the choices offered aren’t necessarily about avoiding liberal indoctrination; the vast majority of the people sending their kids to these schools are voting for Democrats. In fact, I personally don’t know anyone who fits the stereotypical ‘love me, love me I’m a liberal’ profile in St. Paul who didn’t either homeschool or send their kids to a charter for at least part of their kids’ K-12 education. Rather, I think the idea is that all parents see themselves as the ultimate and best arbiters of their children’s lives, including offering them educational opportunities that aren’t currently available in public schools or protecting them from violent fellow students.

        My own step-sons attended charters for a time and I had plenty of concerns about the turn-over of the non-unionized teaching staff, but I don’t see anyone who is arguing against them locally offering solutions for any of the situations you list, or for the reasons my acquaintances sent their kids to charters, or any of the other problems school choice is meant to solve, other than telling parents to take one for the team in a soulless, neo-liberal world, because go team!

  1. Kyle

    Over 70% of voucher money in the state of Indiana goes to private, religious, education.

    And they are trying to skirt through a bill now that would raise the income cap to $250,000 for a family of four – which means affluent people who already send their kids to private school will get subsidized education from the state, help they in fact do not need.

    But it’s how the saying goes – socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor

    1. Stillfeelinthebern

      In Wisconsin, you are only subject the the income limits in the first year.

      I’m sick of hearing about “parents rights.” Everyone pays for public schools. At any given time, a minority of taxpayers actually have children school. And they are not there just to benefit employers. Life is about more than working for da man. Public schools are a public good, they benefit all of us, we all have a say.

  2. Rip Van Winkle

    Choice is great, but still paying local property taxes for the failed system in your district? $350,000 / year + similar pension public school superintendents in suburban chicago metro laughing all the way to the bank.

    1. Joe Well

      If you think that is high, you should see what executives in literally every other sector are making, including nonprofits.

  3. Linda

    Article’s author writes for Our Schools…
    Our Schools goes to the front lines of the nationwide effort to privatize and undermine the public education system. It exposes the false promises of charter schools, voucher programs, and corporate-style reforms and spotlights how communities are fighting back and often succeeding against the school privatization agenda.

    This isn’t journalism it’s propaganda.

    1. Carolinian

      It doesn’t seem to be although the article could have left out the scare reference to Nazis (which turns out to be a couple of cranks with a website if you follow the Vice link). Obviously teachers’ organizations have a stake in this fight and are opposed to vouchers. Meanwhile real estate promoters use good school systems as part of the pitch and politicians as a political football on all sides. As for that last a lot of rich Dems have been pushing Charters which are often just another side of the grift. There are enough moving parts to make your head spin.

      1. eg

        Education — the eternal political football, since there’s never complete agreement on the fundamental question: what is education for?

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      This is an ad hominem attack, which is a violation of our written site Policies.

      If you want to disagree with a post, you need to argue on the merits, which you are apparently too lazy or unable to do.

      I trust you will find your happiness elsewhere on the Internet.

  4. MT_Wild

    So no doubt there’s a lot of grift in the charter school world. But my guess is it pales in comparison to the amount in public education.

    I blame the PMC for needing to create jobs for themselves and driving the growth in the number of “administrators” while the number of teachers remains relatively flat. Same thing in secondary education. They’ve become the reason that increases in funding doesn’t produce results, because none of that spending is used in the classroom.

    Meanwhile gifted programs and honors classes get cut, standardized testing is dropped, and parents are told it’s progress.

    You can’t blame parents for realizing the system is broken, and then grasping at straws to find an alternative.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      With the public schools, you have at least nominal public oversight, accountability and potential for political redress; none of that exists with charters, let alone private voucher academies.

      With public schools the grifts are incidental pathologies with an existing system in place system for rectifying them; in Charter and VoucherLand, the grifts are built-in and inherent.

  5. jackiebass63

    Vouchers were created for two reasons. One is to promote segregation.Even if someone has a voucher it doesn’t mean they will be able to attend the school of their choice. The second is to privatize public education. People need to understand that a free public education is one of the basic things that made our country what it is. Take that away and a quality education will only be available to the rich.

    1. MT_Wild

      You could argue that a quality education is unattainable in at least some public school districts already. And the outlook based on testing and “reforms” seems negative.

      If parents are unable to move to change districts, then they are limited to looking for alternatives where they are located. Homeschooling, private schools, charter schools et cetera are all options for parents looking for options for their kids.

      The ability of a parent or parents to do this is strongly correlated with their education and income. This in turn is correlated in at least some degree to their kids performance on standardized test scores which in aggregate is a general metric for how public schools are evaluated by other parents. School funding follows to some degree as well.

      So there is this whole negative feedback loop death spiral that trap these schools. But as a parent, there’s no effing way I’d leave my kids in a low-performing school for the sake of the public good if I could avoid it.

      Not sure what solutions are possible. I can say that we did move specifically to put our kids in a better school district despite hassles and cost with the commute and basic conveinances, so my bias is clear.

      1. jrkrideau

        You could argue that a quality education is unattainable in at least some public school districts already.

        Change your funding model. Perhaps educational funding comes out of general state level revenue rather than an archaic land tax?

        1. Joe Well

          In Massachusetts, this already exists to some extent. School budgets are “topped up” by the state, and the state’s test scores and parental satisfaction are generally the highest in the US.

          But I agree that municipal taxes should have no role in funding education, which AFAIK they don’t in the vast majority of countries. I imagine this is a big cause for NIMBYism, the need to preserve the tax base “for the children.”

      2. eg

        What you’re really seeing is that your society refuses to make the investments necessary to resolve its fundamental pathologies of which the schools, as an extension of the community, are merely a symptom.

    2. Dan

      Thank you for this comment jackiebass, the racism and entitlement to the already wealthy class is at the root; to privatize a public service and to break unions. Let’s spend our energy and resources to work to make public school system better for all communities. Our previous generations fought hard to create the public school system, we don’t need to let it fail.

  6. Kurtismayfield

    If you are voting for voucher programs and the privatization of schools, you are voting for less control.

    Right now it takes a very small number of parents to influence school policy. You just have to put in the work with school boards. If you vote for “choice”, what you are really going to get in the long run is less local control

    1. Stephanie

      I don’t know how this works in other states but in MN, every charter has its own school board made up of members of the sponsoring institution, teachers, and parents of enrolled children
      Depending on the size of the school it is relatively easy to be elected as a parent – you pretty much just had to show up for the meetings. Some of the charters in St. Paul have gotten fairly large so that may not longer be the case at those schools. At any rate, it strikes me that itay be easier for parents to demand accountability from a single school with this structure than it would be from a large, urban school district.

      1. Kurtismayfield

        That may be true in urban settings, but not in suburban and rural setting it isn’t. And what are the chances that large urban settings will completely atomize control?

        1. Stephanie

          I’m not sure what you mean – do I think that urban school districts will restructure to create school boards at the level of individual schools, or perhaps neighborhoods? If so, then no, not at all. To do that you’d need to reform school funding so it no longer drew from local property taxes and was instead distributed by the state – but even then you’d see pressure to form economies of scale. I’m honestly surprised that we haven’t seen more of that happening with charters here, since frequently a sponsoring institution will sponsor multiple charters – you’d think an institution with multiple schools would at some point want to merge schools to form a larger ‘district’. It’s possible the legal structure of charters here doesn’t allow for that.

  7. MK

    Please read the book “Finnish Lessons. ” It provides a blueprint to make public education work for the public. The Finnish school system is rated as one of the best in the world.

    1. c_heale

      I did my teaching work experience in Finland in 2011. It was amazing. And one interesting thing is that in the 1970’s the educational system was terrible, so bad that they were forced to reform it. And I remember a visiting American student, saying it was like Dewey’s ideal educational system.

      But Finland has a very small population, and the government, teachers, and people are much more on the same page than in many other countries. It’s more like a single US state.

      The USA has a much less democratic political system, much more corruption, and is much more neoliberal. There is no willingness to fix the education system in any level of government that I can see (but I am dependent on the media, since I don’t live there).

      The other problem is that it impossible to translate educational systems between countries.

      In recent years (since 2011), a friend has informed me the Finnish educational system has gone a bit more market orientated to its detriment. But not as much as the Swedish educational system which is apparently much worse than the Finnish one (mainly due to neo-liberal “reforms”).

      I have no idea how the US educational system can be fixed under the current polarised US political system on every level. In my opinion, its much more likely to get worse, because the people in power at nearly every level, have no interest in making it better.

  8. Questa Nota

    Multivariate problems in an artificial binary world.
    The latter makes for clickbait, campaign ads and grift opportunities, among others.

    There are aspects of public education and of vouchers that address parental concerns, beyond class or other categories. Why not look at those aspects without the either/or, to the exclusion of complementary or offsetting factors?

    Here are a few to consider.
    People can have legitimate concerns about either approach.
    + socialization and exposure to others
    + resource availability for participation in group and development activities
    + add your own
    – voucher programs may open up scams or bait-and-switch or similar wealth transfers without results
    – teacher unions who said they are for their members first and that students don’t vote, so politicized
    – add your own

  9. Peter Nightingale

    I think that there is a parallel between school vouchers and Medicare Advantage. This is my tentative conclusion based on the following for which I have no evidence whatsoever for it.

    It seems that Medicare Advantage plans offer better deals than the standard Medicare options. Where does that money come from. It may be tougher negotiations with the providers. It may also be that those who have money for Medicare Advantage are richer, healthier, and a lower risk. Maybe both of the above and who knows what? For now, I’m betting on rich (predominantly white) flight being responsible for the better Medicare Advantage deals.

    It would be nice to have some real data, but I have no clue where to begin.

  10. Insouciant Iowan

    In Iowa ESAs are a key part of Republican super-majority dominance. Some rural Rs opposed the bill in last year’s legislative session. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) campaigned successfully in 2021 primaries against several rural Rs who were opposed, and for opponents who supported them. I’m told (I stopped looking in at FOX some years ago) that she appears with some frequency on FOX and that she’s angling for some sort of role in a Republican administration.
    Ds lost lots of ground in that election (2021). They rail against privatizing education, but are not getting much traction. They have now retreated to defending against book purging from school curricula and school libraries. They have also tacked to critiquing Rs for punitive measures directed at trans students, e.g., bathroom use, sports competition.
    Sounds like VA Rs are a very different breed to Iowa’s.

    1. some guy

      It begins to look like genuinely rural people and urban-suburban Red Team motormouth hustlers are two different sets of people with two different sets of diverging interests.

      An honest political party ( which the anti-New Deal Wall Street DLC New Democrats will never ever be ) would have something useful to offer to genuinely rural people. It may be that genuinely rural people may have to engineer and grow such an honest political party into existence themselves, by themselves, against the the opposition of all the most talented Brain Control Engineers the Two Party System has on retainer.

  11. Rolf

    My limited experience in the public school system is that many ISDs are run as top-down businesses, whose top echelons work to minimize the independence and costs of a trained labor pool.

    All education literature establishes the teacher as the central component in the education process. High quality teachers are thus the lynchpin of any school, and many districts have very dedicated and talented ones, who know how to teach children and love doing so, be it reading, art, math, science, music, etc. However, these valuable, front line personnel have little freedom in jobs in which they often burn out early, either from the stress of simultaneously satisfying parents, administrators, and legislators, curriculum content established by state education departments in fine print over which they have zero control, or from the difficulty in competing with smartphones, TikTok and YouTube videos, computer-controlled “instruction” bereft of emotional connection, the relentless schedule of standardized testing, and other impediments that remove or minimize the teacher’s role in the personal and creative process of learning.

    Many students are also promoted to the next grade even though they are functioning well below grade level, often due to problems at home: economic and emotional stress. Instead, “accomodations” are established for these underperforming kids (as mandated by federal law), requiring additional resources in terms of personnel and time that are already in short supply.

    Enter vouchers and charters as alternatives for parents whose children would otherwise be placed in public schools whose low performance reflects the difficulty in addressing problems fundamentally economic in nature, residing not in school but at home.

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