Public Schools

The Fight Over States' Private School Voucher Proposals Is Heating Up

  Nik Nartowicz

Private school vouchers were at the center of the debate in states across the country this week. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) unveiled his new voucher plan, and legislative committees in Iowa and Florida moved their voucher bills forward. Meanwhile, rural Republicans in the Georgia Senate teamed up with Democrats to kill the private school voucher in that state.

Private school vouchers are bad public policy for so many reasons, including the fact that they funnel desperately needed funds away from public schools to private, primarily religious education. Taxpayer dollars should fund public schools – which 90 percent of students in America attend – not unaccountable private schools that can limit who attends them. Nonetheless, there have been 121 bills filed this year in states across the country to expand or create new voucher programs. So far these bills have seen mixed results.

On Monday, Lee revealed his plans for Tennessee’s first voucher. Lee’s plan would divert $25 million away from public schools to fund an education savings account (ESA) voucher. For now, the voucher would solely provide vouchers for low-income students, but we know from experience that it doesn’t take long before targeted programs like this are expanded to include more and more categories of students. According to Chalkbeat, Lee’s plan includes few details and “generates more questions than answers.” But with vouchers as a top priority of the governor, we are sure to see the debate over vouchers soon move to the statehouse.

On Wednesday, bills advanced in both Florida and Iowa. At a Florida Senate subcommittee hearing, several senators and witnesses spoke against SB 7070, including Rev. Russell Meyer of the Florida Council of Churches, who is worried that the bill would send public money to private religious schools that don’t have to meet state standards. We submitted a letter to the subcommittee urging it to reject the bill because it violates the Florida state constitution. Some supporters of the bill, however, want to set up this state constitutional clash in the hopes that the makeup of the Florida Supreme Court has changed enough for it to overturn an established ruling that prohibits the state from funding private religious schools.

In Iowa, the Education Committee narrowly passed SF 372. State Sen. Claire Celsi (D-Des Moines) spoke against the bill, warning that it “is a fundamental rewriting of the way we do public education in Iowa” and has the potential to take “hundreds of millions of dollars” from public schools. The voucher would originally have been available to all students, but the committee narrowed the scope so it will apply only to students with special needs. However, students with special needs are the children who are often hurt the most by voucher programs. AU sent a letter to the Education Committee last week that explained the problems with vouchers and that the bill violates the Iowa Constitution.

In good news, Georgia state senators voted down SB 173 by a vote of 28-25 on the senate floor on Tuesday. The huge price tag (almost $550 million over the next decade), the lack of any real chance for debate at the committee level, and the fact that vouchers just don’t work led to senators rejecting the bill.

The fight over vouchers in the states isn’t going away – it’s just heating up. But Americans United and our allies at the National Coalition for Public Education aren’t going away either – and we’re armed with the facts about the myriad of problems with vouchers.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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