April 2019 Church & State Magazine - April 2019

Fighting Private School Voucher Proposals In West Virginia And Other States

  Rob Boston

Public school teachers in West Virginia staged a two-day walkout to block a voucher plan under consideration in the state legislature.

The Feb. 19-20 strike took place after legislators appeared poised to push through a law creating “education savings accounts” – a type of voucher plan – in the state. Within hours after the strike started, the House of Delegates voted to table the bill, which would have cost at least $20 million. The teachers said they would stay off the job one more day just to make sure the Senate didn’t try to resurrect it.

“It’s … clear we cannot trust the leadership in the Senate,” Fred Albert, president of the West Virginia branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said. “That’s why we are staying out one more day to make sure this is a dead bill.”

The Washington Post reported that the voucher plan was part of an education package that also included money for charter schools and a modest raise in teacher salaries. But the state’s teachers weren’t swayed by the pay hike and were determined to keep vouchers out of the state.

Albert said teachers in the state felt that they were not being heard. Legislators brought in proponents of education privatization from out of state and allowed them to testify at length during hearings, while advocates of public education were given far less time to speak. “We’re left no other choice,” Albert said of the strike. “Our voice has been shut out.”

National groups also weighed in on the matter on the side of the teachers. On Feb. 4, Americans Uni­ted sent a letter to members of the West Virginia Senate, urging them to reject the bill.

“Private school vouchers divert desperately needed public resources away from public schools to fund the education of a few students at private schools; yet they do not improve educational outcomes,” wrote AU State Policy Counsel Nik Nartowicz. “In fact, studies of the Indiana, Washington, DC, Louisiana, and Ohio voucher programs revealed that students who used vouchers actually performed worse on standardized tests than their peers not in voucher programs.”

AU also pointed out that the plan would violate a section of the West Virginia Constitution that says no resident “shall be compelled to … support any religious … place.”

In other news about vouchers:

  • The Georgia state Senate voted down a voucher bill by a vote of 28-25 last month. The measure, SB 173, carried a huge price tag of almost $550 million over the next decade. Republican senators from rural parts of the state joined the largely Democratic opposition, arguing that vouchers won’t do anything for their constituents.
  • Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) unveiled a voucher plan in March. Lee’s plan would divert $25 million away from public schools to fund an education savings account voucher program. For now, the plan would provide vouchers for low-income students only, but it could be expanded in the future if it is implemented. The education site Chalkbeat reported that Lee’s plan includes few details and “generates more questions than answers.”
  • Florida lawmakers are considering a new voucher plan. During a Florida Senate subcommittee hearing, several senators and witnesses spoke against the scheme, SB 7070, including Rev. Russell Meyer of the Florida Council of Churches. Americans United also submitted a letter to the subcommittee urging it to reject the bill because it violates the Florida state constitution.
  • In Iowa, the Senate Education Committee narrowly passed SF 372, a voucher plan. 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 have originally been available to all students, but the committee narrowed its scope so it will apply only to students with special needs.

          AU sent a letter to the committee that explained the problems with vouchers, and that the bill violates the Iowa Constitution.

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