Tomorrow is the last day of National School Choice Week, the time of year when private school choice advocates across the country push for the expansion or creation of new private school voucher programs. This year, due to the ongoing pandemic, National School Choice Week may look different than it has in the past. Fortunately, the pro-voucher administration of former President Donald Trump and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was unsuccessful in enacting any new federally funded voucher programs over the last four years. But advocates in the states have been gearing up for a renewed effort.
We know that private school voucher programs are bad public policy for so many reasons, including that they funnel desperately needed funds away from public schools to private, mostly religious, schools. And public schools face unprecedented financial difficulties right now because of COVID-19. There are increased costs to offer virtual learning and make sure in-person classes are safe for teachers and students. At the same time, states are cutting public school budgets because of decreased revenue. The Learning Policy Institute estimated that COVID-19 has cost public schools between $199 billion and $246 billion. Lawmakers should not drain additional money away from public schools – which 90 percent of our students attend – in the middle of a pandemic.
Unfortunately, a number of state legislatures are already working to pass voucher bills this session. In Iowa, for example, the state Senate is moving quickly to try to pass SF 159, which would create a new private school voucher program. The bill was just introduced last week, passed out of the Education Committee on Monday, and could be debated on the Senate floor as early as today. AU sent a letter to members of the Senate urging them to reject the bill, but it is a priority for Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), so the fight will be tough.
The Arizona Senate is also pushing to spend more money on its voucher programs, even though Arizona voters overwhelmingly defeated efforts to expand vouchers in 2018. SB 1041 would quadruple the cap on a voucher program for students with disabilities to $20 million in just three years. We sent a letter to the Finance Committee explaining that voucher programs often fail students with disabilities and reminding the Senators that Arizona’s voucher programs have a history of fraud, including more than $700,000 in unauthorized purchases in one year. Although the bill did pass out of committee, we will continue to fight when it gets to the Senate floor.
And in Missouri, the Senate Education Committee approved a bill worthy of Dr. Frankenstein last week. SB 55 combines a number of unrelated education issues, and it includes language that would create Missouri’s first voucher program. The bill could cost the state up to $100 million just in the first year. Our allies expect the bill to be debated on the floor next week, so if you live in Missouri, click here to tell your senator to oppose SB 55.
Fortunately, these bills have to go through a few more steps before they become law. But Americans United and our allies at the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE) will be there for the fight – and we’re armed with the facts about the myriad of problems with vouchers.
To learn more about the threat vouchers pose to public education and church-state separation, visit this section of NCPE’s website.