State and local experience proves school vouchers are a failed policy that must be opposed: As voucher expansion bills gain momentum, look to public school advocates for guidance

Recently passed school voucher bills in four states are part of an extreme and unpopular campaign to defund and privatize public schools. As momentum builds around efforts to divert public funds to private schools, lawmakers and advocates should recommit to opposing harmful voucher bills and supporting greater investment in public education. Research and advocacy by educators and champions of public education in the states can serve as a guide.

On Tuesday, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a congressional hearing on voucher expansion featuring three voucher advocates and one opponent. The hearing comes amid an intense, coordinated push this year by anti-public school advocates who have long sought to privatize public education, in part through state-level efforts to enact private school voucher programs in state legislatures across the country.

School vouchers—which include traditional private school subsidies, Education Savings Accounts, and private school tuition tax credits—are diversions of public funds to private and religious schools. Efforts to implement and expand voucher programs in states across the country are key to the relentless and enduring campaign to defund and then privatize public education, a movement that also includes manufacturing mistrust in public schools and targeting educators and their unions.

Types of vouchers:

  • Traditional vouchers: The government writes a check to subsidize tuition at private schools using funding collected through taxes.
  • Education Savings Account (ESA) vouchers: Instead of paying private schools directly, public funds are deposited into savings accounts that families can use to pay for private schools.
  • Tax credit vouchers: Individuals or businesses receive a tax credit in exchange for “donations” to organizations that provide vouchers for private school tuition. As a result, government tax revenue is rerouted to private organizations.

Despite overwhelming evidence of the harms of voucher programs and the unpopularity of attacks on public education, right-wing anti-education privatization advocates have prioritized the creation or expansion of school voucher programs as a policy goal this year in statehouses across the country. As of March 2023, public education advocates are tracking voucher bills in at least 24 states. As of mid-April, universal voucher bills—which will allow all families, regardless of income, to use public funds to pay for private education—have passed in four states: Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, and Florida. Meanwhile, voucher expansion bills have failed in at least six states so far in 2023: Georgia, Texas, Idaho, Virginia, Kentucky, and South Dakota.

Given the renewed push for state school voucher legislation and the certainty of continued attacks on public education, policymakers and advocates must renew their efforts to oppose vouchers in every form and fulfill states’ constitutional mandate of universal, high-quality public education.

Public education advocates have been tirelessly fighting against harmful voucher bills in states across the country

For years, state groups affiliated with EPI’s nationwide Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN), alongside teachers’ unions and other public education advocates, have been sounding the alarm about the threat of vouchers to public education. Though school voucher bills have already passed in four states in 2023, it’s not too late for other states and future lawmakers to learn from the work of public school advocates and choose a different path. Below, we identify five EARN groups among those that have been particularly engaged in prolonged fights against voucher expansion in their states and can serve as guides for assessing vouchers’ impacts and opposing state-level attacks on public education:

Arizona Center for Economic Progress (AZCEP): AZCEP has conducted significant analysis of voucher programs in response to relentless attacks on public education in Arizona, particularly in 2022, during which four voucher expansion bills were under consideration. Recent AZCEP resources include a four-part series on the history of vouchers in the state, an analysis of the fiscal impacts of vouchers on public schools, a fact sheet on the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding vouchers, and evidence that vouchers are creating unequal opportunities for most students. AZCEP also joined teachers, parents, and other public school advocates in a statewide campaign to block the voucher expansion bill passed in 2022. Unfortunately, well-funded attacks on public education prevailed, and the state now stands to lose up to $1 billion per year for public schools.

Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI): Over the past decade, GBPI has produced research and analysis in response to numerous attempts to expand voucher programs in Georgia. Most recently, GBPI provided analysis that helped defeat SB 233, a voucher bill that threatened to funnel millions of dollars away from public schools. The bill garnered opposition from rural Republicans, who know their constituents stand to lose the most from the diversion of public school funds to private schools. GBPI also analyzed data from Georgia’s Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit to show that the program drains public funding from rural counties and redistributes it to a few wealthier counties. On TikTok, GBPI’s resident vouchers expert Stephen Owens explained how tax credit vouchers are overwhelmingly claimed by wealthy families and serve as tax shelters for businesses.

Florida Policy Institute (FPI): FPI has written numerous reports on the fiscal impacts of voucher expansion proposals in Florida. A 2023 FPI analysis found that HB 1, which passed the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and was signed into law, will cost the state $4 billion in its first year alone. According to FPI research, existing voucher programs in the state are already siphoning public school funds to subsidize private school tuition to the tune of over $1 billion during the 2022–2023 school year.

Common Good Iowa (CGI): CGI has been vocal in its opposition to voucher expansion bills in Iowa over the past three years: These bills represent a “radical giveaway to wealthy families already in private schools.” In 2023, CGI published research showing that the state’s planned voucher expansion would cost the state $340 million and lead to losses of $7,600 per student—losses that will be felt most by low-income students and students in rural counties. CGI also created an in-depth explainer on how wealthy Iowans use private school tuition tax credits as a profitable tax avoidance scheme—paid for by everyone else. With the help of recently-expanded Republican control of the state legislature and a voucher-obsessed Republican governor, Iowa’s voucher expansion bill passed this year and was signed into law.

Every Texan: In Texas, Every Texan has been sounding the alarm about the harm of school vouchers for a decade. In 2017, Every Texan published a research brief finding that the state’s voucher program would cost public schools over $2 billion and showing how vouchers predominantly benefit wealthy families. Every Texan reminds us that vouchers are a legacy of white supremacy, unpopular, anti-democratic, and “just bad policy.” Though Texas Governor Greg Abbott has identified voucher expansion as his signature proposal for the 2023 legislative session, a bipartisan group of legislators (including rural Republicans) have effectively blocked the bill by passing a budget amendment that prohibits the use of public funds for private schools.

Vouchers are a failed, unpopular policy driven by larger efforts to destroy public education

There is substantial and growing evidence that voucher programs do not serve students and may deepen educational and economic inequality. Voucher programs and the broader education privatization movement of which they are a part are also deeply unpopular. Instead, education privatization is a project by deep-pocketed right-wing funders and think tanks committed to dismantling our public institutions and collective power and implementing a policy regime of social control in service of the wealthy and corporations.

Ineffective, inefficient, and inequitable: Research on state and local experience shows vouchers are a failed public policy

  • Vouchers do not improve educational outcomes and likely worsen them. There is an extensive body of research finding that voucher programs do not improve student achievement. Recent studies in four states all showed that students who used vouchers experienced worse academic outcomes than their peers, and a study of voucher programs in Milwaukee found that voucher students performed better after transferring from private to public schools.
  • Vouchers represent a redistribution of public funding to private entities that leads to fewer funds available for public goods. An analysis of voucher programs in seven states found an unmistakable trend of decreased funding for public schools as a result of voucher expansion. Given the causal relationship between school funding and student achievement, denying public schools the funds necessary to educate students directly harms student outcomes.
  • Vouchers benefit the wealthy at the expense of low-income and rural communities. Vouchers mostly fund students who are already attending private school, and wealthy families are overwhelmingly the recipients of school voucher tax credits—they can even use tax shelters to profit from “donations” to voucher organizations. Further, since vouchers typically do not cover the full cost of private school, low-income families are still unable to afford private school education—even with a voucher—and few rural students have access to private schools. Since many private schools do not provide transportation, low-income students in both urban and rural areas lack affordable and accessible transportation to and from school.
  • Vouchers are rooted in racism and fund racial, ableist, anti-LGBTQ, and religious discrimination. Voucher expansion and the broad school privatization movement were born out of racist opposition to school desegregation in the mid 20th century. Additionally, voucher programs divert public funds to private schools that are more racially segregated than public schools and discriminate against students based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, ability, and religion. Most states do not provide nondiscrimination protections for students who attend private schools.
  • Unlike public schools, private school voucher programs lack accountability and oversight. A 2020 study found that only about half of states with voucher programs require teachers to have bachelor’s degrees; even fewer states require that teachers are licensed, and fewer still require participating private schools to report graduation rates. Since many states do not collect data on students who use vouchers and do not require reporting on how funds are used, it is difficult to evaluate the impacts of vouchers on student achievement, and there are many examples of fraud and abuse of public funds diverted to vouchers.

Vouchers are unpopular, and the movement to expand them is anti-democratic

Across the country, voters and parents overwhelmingly support improving public education and oppose vouchers and “neo-vouchers” like ESAs and tax credits for private schools. Anti-public education advocates tacitly recognize this reality. Their current political strategy, as they have articulated it, is to focus only on states with Republican-controlled legislatures. The fact that voucher bills that failed miserably in past years have found adequate support more recently is not a coincidence.

Republican governors have sought to change the composition of their state legislatures by electing anti-public education advocates to office and defeating candidates who oppose voucher expansion. Such was the case in Iowa, whose state legislature narrowly enacted an expansive voucher bill this legislative session after similar bills failed the previous two years. Last year’s bill was blocked by rural Republicans who knew their constituents would be harmed by the diversion of public school funds to private schools; in response, Gov. Reynolds endorsed primary challengers to replace them and increase the GOP’s House majority enough to pass the bill this session. The same strategy is being deployed in Texas, where the pro-voucher governor is aligned with wealthy donors committed to unseating Republicans who oppose his agenda.

Vouchers are embedded in a larger movement to dismantle public education that is out of step with parents and voters

Instead of touting the supposed effectiveness or efficiency gains of voucher expansion, advocates have shifted their focus to values-based arguments, like those around school curricula and parental consent. These advocates now frame voucher expansion as a “path to halt woke indoctrination” and “escape government-run education.” Heritage Foundation-backed Lindsey Burke, who testified at Tuesday’s hearing in support of school voucher expansion, has explicitly argued in support of eliminating the Department of Education. Denisha Allen of the Betsy DeVos-founded American Federation for Children, who also testified in support of vouchers, sees the “war against the teachers’ union and the school choice movement” as inextricably intertwined and has called teachers’ unions “cartels” that are “taking students hostage for ransom.”

Yet these extreme views are not widely held. Most parents are concerned about teacher shortages, a lack of respect for teachers, and inadequate funding for public schools. Large majorities of parents and voters do not believe that public schools are going too far to promote a “woke” political agenda. Nonetheless, disingenuous efforts to sow division between parents and teachers have afforded voucher advocates some relevance in the current political moment, buoyed by their alignment with the broader right-wing propaganda machine.

The most vocal institutional backers of voucher expansion are well-funded right-wing groups like the Koch-founded dark money group Americans for Prosperity, the Bradley Foundation, and the Heritage Foundation. The Bradley Foundation has contributed tens of millions of dollars to school voucher advocates, efforts to defund teachers’ unions and unions generally, and groups that promote baseless claims about widespread “voter fraud.” The Heritage Foundation, a prominent right-wing think tank and long-time recipient of Bradley Foundation funding, has publicly parroted Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud, and in 2021, the organization’s dark money arm spent more than $5 million on lobbying for a far-right agenda that included aggressive voter suppression tactics in Republican-controlled states.

Voucher expansion is merely one prong in the right-wing agenda to weaken and eventually destroy public institutions, public services, and public power. In the absence of genuine public support for vouchers, voucher advocates are attempting—with some recent success—to manufacture support by buying political favor and stifling the democratic process. As privatization advocates ramp up their efforts in state legislatures across the country, lawmakers, researchers, and advocates for racial and economic justice must recognize the importance of opposing these assaults and supporting collective investments in our schools and communities.