Taxpayer swindle: More states should not seek school vouchers
School vouchers are a taxpayer swindle that fails to raise achievement while eroding public schools and the principle of equal protection under the law outlined in the U.S. Constitution. If more states adopt school voucher systems, most parents will find their top choice — a neighborhood public school — largely defunded and unable to recruit and retain high-quality teachers due to a transfer of funds into unregulated private schools.
Americans from all backgrounds have fought to gain access to public schools, including freed slaves, immigrants and people with disabilities. These struggles have led to a free universal public education system that propels each child into our democracy, communities and economy. Public schools also serve as community hubs where neighborhoods gather to vote, watch sports, participate in townhalls, among many other public events.
Vouchers jeopardize all of this because they transfer money from public schools to individual parents through grants, savings accounts or scholarships to pay private school tuition. It is a system where self-interest replaces the common good, culminating in separate education systems for children living on the same street in the same community.
Voucher supporters say parents know what is best for their children, but that is not necessarily the case. As education researchers, we know that voucher systems have led to significant declines in student achievement for voucher users in Louisiana, Indiana, New York City and Washington, D.C., especially for low-income students. In a study on the effects of the Louisiana Scholarship Program — a large voucher program established in 2008 and expanded in 2012 — researchers found that students participating in the voucher program were significantly behind their peers in reading and mathematics after four years.
There should also be concern that despite these well-documented failures, billionaires such as Betsy DeVos of Michigan and Charles Koch of Kansas use their fortunes to reportedly subvert state elections from thousands of miles away. This is not about parent choice or student achievement. It is political.
Sadly, some state policymakers adopt equally hypocritical policy positions as they support vouchers. For example, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has become a vocal voucher supporter, yet he’s also a supporter of high-stakes accountability. Texas battled in court for years to take control of the Houston Independent School District due to low performance. So, on one hand, the state is supporting accountability for public school performance, and on the other hand, there is support for vouchers — a policy where taxpayer dollars are transferred to private schools that do not follow state accountability standards and where the state has virtually no oversight.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is also a voucher supporter. In 2022, DeSantis signed legislation dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that banned classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity — yet, his state’s voucher program has no oversight over private school curricula. This means a private school receiving taxpayer dollars can teach about sexual orientation and gender identity without any legal recourse from the state.
In Arizona, former Gov. Doug Ducey (R) supported voucher legislation based on his belief that it would “offer all families the option to choose the school setting that works best for them.” Nevertheless, Arizona’s voucher system has been overwhelmingly used by wealthy families that were already sending their children to private schools before voucher legislation. Few low-income families could afford private school tuition and transportation with the voucher — a predictable policy shortcoming.
To make matters worse, current and pending voucher legislation could even reportedly fund racist curricula. Recently, a Nazi homeschooling group in Ohio stated they were creating “Nazi-approved homeschool material.” Under Ohio state law and many current and proposed voucher laws, states would be left powerless to intervene if a private school adopted such a curriculum.
Vouchers just do not make sense, and we should recognize that vouchers offer a false choice. What parent wants the choice to defund public education while transferring taxpayer money to unaccountable private schools that do not improve student achievement but can deny admission, discriminate against children and develop ineffective or harmful curriculum without any recourse?
David DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.
David S. Knight is an associate professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington.
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