January 2024 Church & State Magazine - January 2024

Failed experiment: For the first time ever, a state is letting a school voucher plan expire

  Rob Boston

Something unusual but significant happened in Illinois in November. In a nationwide first, legislators allowed a private school voucher program to expire.

No vouchers! AU activist Mirabelle Stoedter and others speak out against Lee’s plan (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

The Illinois House of Representatives decided not to renew the voucher program before it expires this month, meaning it will sunset this year. The bill to keep the program alive never even made it to the House floor for a vote.

The action is important because historically, once school voucher plans get established, they’re nearly impossible to get rid of even though they take money from public schools, foster discrimination and fail to deliver better educational outcomes.

In many states, voucher programs have been pitched as “experiments” in an effort to convince otherwise skeptical legislators to vote for them. Sometimes there’s even a time limit on how long the programs will last. But they keep getting extended. Such is the case with Washington, D.C.’s federally funded voucher program. Originally proposed to last five years, it’s now 20 years old. Several studies have shown that the plan isn’t boosting student achievement, but all efforts to shut it down have failed.

The Illinois plan, euphemistically called the “Invest in Kids Act,” was passed in 2017. Since then, it has drained $250 million of taxpayer dollars from the state’s General Revenue Fund. The vast majority of private schools, 95%, that took part were religious.

In addition, the voucher program sent taxpayer dollars to schools that discriminate. Illinois Families for Public Schools discovered that 20% of participating schools have anti-LGBTQ+ policies.

The study also found that only 13% of private schools in the voucher program in 2022 reported that they served any special education students. The majority of schools in the program are Catholic schools, and four of six Catholic dioceses in Illinois have policies that say schools may refuse to accommodate students with disabilities.

Critics noted that the program lacked accountability. Even though the schools participating in the voucher program are required to administer state tests to students receiving vouchers annually, more than five years into the program, no reporting on test scores has ever been released.

Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, observed, “There’s no reason to think that this voucher scheme would be any different than others across the country. They take money out of the public coffers for public education. The schools that receive this money are not accountable some of them exclude students with special needs. It’s not a good use of public dollars.”

Writing on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, Mary Cugini, AU’s public policy coordinator, wrote, “We know that Montgomery is right. Evidence from across the country proves that vouchers don’t work: They don’t improve student achievement, lack accountability, fund discrimination, can exacerbate racial segregation and harm religious freedom.”

Illinois Families for Public Schools also celebrated the demise of the program.

“This is a huge win for public schools in Illinois,” the group said in a statement. “It is also a win for the principle of the separation of church and state and for ensuring public dollars are not used to violate civil rights and are spent with the oversight, transparency and accountability that public spending should require. Public funds must be for public schools that serve all kids.

“This is also a historic win for the fight against the privatization of public schools in our country more broadly. We are the first state in the US to roll back an existing voucher scheme.”

Americans United joined a diverse coalition of more than 65 local, state and national organizations to urge the Illinois General Assembly to let the voucher program sunset as planned.

Nevertheless, voucher plans continue to spread in several states.

In other news about school vouchers:

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) has proposed a dramatic expansion of the state’s voucher plan. The program is currently limited to residents of three counties who are considered low-income. Under Lee’s plan, vouchers would be offered statewide to all families, regardless of their income level.

During an event unveiling the proposal, Lee invited Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) to speak. Arkansas has a wide-ranging voucher plan with no income limits. About 5,000 students are participating, with the vast majority attending religious institutions.

Mirabelle Stoedter, vice president of AU’s Nashville Chapter, and other group activists attended the press conference to protest the plan. 

“We are against vouchers,”  Stoedter told the Associated Press. “Public schools should come first.  The money should be used to make the public schools better. Yeah, there’s problems with public schools, but we need the money to make them better.”  

Private schools in Arizona raised tuition rates after state lawmakers passed a voucher plan, a new report says.

Arizona’s plan offers vouchers worth $7,200 per year to all parents, regardless of income. The nonprofit Hechinger Report noted that “analysis of dozens of private school websites revealed that, among 55 that posted their tuition rates, nearly all raised their prices since 2022. Some schools made modest increases, often in line with or below the overall inflation rate last year of around 6 percent. But at nearly half of the schools, tuition increased in at least some grades by 10 percent or more. In five of those cases, schools hiked tuition by more than 20 percent much higher than even the steep inflation that hit the Phoenix metro area and well beyond what [a voucher] could cover.”

Nik Nartowicz, state policy counsel for Americans United, told Hechinger that the tuition hikes will make it harder for low-income families to afford private school tuition.

“The average amount of tuition is going to be more than the actual voucher, not to mention transportation and uniform costs,” Nartowicz said. “This doesn’t help low-income families.”

Friends of public education have a right to be frustrated by the situation in Arizona. The state legislature passed a sweeping voucher plan in 2017. The following year, voters overturned it at the ballot box by a 2-1 vote. Undaunted, the legislature ignored the public will and passed the plan again.

With vouchers pegged so high, the universal program is costing the state a staggering $900 million annually. The plan was originally estimated to cost $65 million per year.

Public school advocates are livid.

“Are we seriously about to bankrupt our state subsidizing private school tuition for the wealthy?” Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, said in a statement to the Arizona Mirror, an online news site. “Arizona is 49th in the nation for per-pupil public school funding, with thousands of educators leaving the state or the profession in search of higher pay and better benefits. But instead of funding the public schools attended by 90% of Arizona kids, we’re about to spend nearly a billion dollars helping the rich pay for private school.” 

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) made passing a school voucher bill a key part of his legislative agenda, but members of the Texas House of Representatives refused to take up the bill during the state’s regular session. A frustrated Abbott called four special sessions to force passage of the bill. However, legislators remained firm and refused to pass it. Abbott has the power to call another special session and may do so this month or in February.

Although the Texas legislature is dominated by Republicans, many GOP lawmakers from rural areas oppose vouchers because they worry that a plan will harm the public schools that small communities rely on.

Americans United co-chairs the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), an umbrella group founded in 1978 to support public schools and oppose the funneling of public money to private and religious schools through vouchers, tuition tax credits, education savings accounts and other vehicles.

Visit NCPE’s website to learn more about the threat vouchers pose to public education: www.ncpecoalition.org/.

For Nex and all 2SLGBTQ+ students in Oklahoma

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