With the election of President Donald Trump and the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, proponents of school choice have taken their place at the forefront of the national educational debate.
DeVos is a longtime advocate of school choice measures and her selection has helped advance the opinion that a federal school voucher program is an effective means of education reform. H.R. 610, The Choices in Education Act 2017, was introduced in Congress by Iowa Rep. Steve King (R) Jan. 23 and closely aligns with DeVos’ positions to reduce the authority of the Department of Education and establish a federal school voucher program.
Advocates for voucher programs say this bill will increase the overall quality of education while also decreasing taxpayer costs. Critics argue that voucher programs leave less money for public schools, therefore causing special-education and low-income students to suffer the most.
Regardless of where you fall in the school choice and voucher debate, it isn’t difficult to determine what the passage of this bill could mean to public schools in Washington.
A majority of public school funding comes from local and state revenue sources, but over 10 percent of all Washington school districts’ budgets originate in the federal government. These funds are primarily earmarked to support programs aimed at low-income students, special-education programs and English-as-a-second-language learners. Proposed cuts to the Department of Education’s budget in order to implement a federal voucher program would divert these funds from students in need. Essential services and vital programs would likely be cut in the name of making school choice the law of the land.
Proponents of a school choice plan as outlined in H.R. 610 contend that because a voucher requires less funding than the per-student dollar amount public schools currently receive, it would save the state money. If we look to the state of Indiana, which enacted a similar plan under then Gov. Mike Pence, we see that it isn’t that simple. The cost of a voucher in Indiana is about 90 percent of what public schools receive per student. In theory, if a student were to leave the public school after receiving a voucher for a private or religious school, the government would save that 10 percent difference.
School choice advocates believe the math is this simple and that a voucher will save the government money. However, the facts don’t support this conclusion. During the 2015-2016 school year, the majority of Indiana students who received vouchers had never attended a public school before. These vouchers were not being used to offer school choice to public school children. Instead, the vouchers were used primarily for students who were enrolled in a private school and who would otherwise continue to attend with or without a voucher.
School vouchers have been a popular idea with Washington conservatives for years and there was even a 1996 ballot initiative that would have allowed parents to utilize public vouchers for private school tuition. The initiative failed at the polls but two decades later, the idea may be gaining new life. The 2016 Washington State Republican Party platform indicated the party’s support for “school choice through vouchers including: home schooling, private schools, public schools, charter schools and vocational and technical training.” Although school vouchers haven’t come to Washington yet, it is safe to say that a portion of our Legislature would welcome their arrival.
Is this the way we want to use tax dollars in Washington? Do we want to subsidize private education by diverting funds away from public schools that educate every child regardless of income or ability?
Back in Indiana, a study released by the nonpartisan Brookings Institute found that “public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools.” The study found that while public schools had improved, private schools did not because they were mostly exempt from state accountability standards.
Instead of shifting money from one group of students to another, we should spend it more wisely to help them all.
Meredith Browand is a mother and activist living in Purdy.