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New School Voucher Laws Put Public Education in Peril

June 11, 2015

Over the past several days, two stories have highlighted the critical condition state of American public education. As the New York Times detailed, K12 school budgets in over 30 states have yet to return to their pre-recession, 2008 levels. Of the seven with the deepest reductions, six--Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Wisconsin--made matters worse cut income tax rates during the same time frame. But as the Washington Post reported, Nevada is breaking new ground in breaking up its public schools. In the broadest school voucher law to date, the families of all 450,000 Silver State students can pocket their $5,700 share of per-pupil funding and spend it instead at the private, parochial or home school of their choice.

Previous voucher laws passed in 27 states since 2006 allowed small numbers of low-income or disabled children to redirect public school dollars to private or religious institutions. But in Nevada, Republican Governor Brian Sandoval signed a bill siphoning off the entire per-pupil funding for vouchers:

Starting next school year, any parent in Nevada can pull a child from the state's public schools and take tax dollars with them, giving families the option to use public money to pay for private or parochial school or even for home schooling.
The new law, which the state's Republican-controlled legislature passed with help from the education foundation created by former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), is a breakthrough for conservatives, who call it the ultimate in school choice. And they are working to spread it nationwide: Lawmakers in Georgia, Iowa and Rhode Island considered similar legislation this year.

Now, school voucher plans have long represented a triple play for Republicans for whom "public good" is a four letter word. Free market ideologues extoll the virtues of "competition" between private and public institutions. By gutting public schools, GOP strategists hope to undermine the teachers' unions who represent a consistent source of support for Democrats. Social conservatives dream of appropriating the American public's cash for religious schools.
But the Nevada scheme is different in kind and degree from the voucher approaches in states like Louisiana, Georgia, Arizona and Indiana. Whether in the form of tax credits, education savings accounts, or vouchers for low-income or disabled children, programs in Louisiana and Wisconsin have so far only funded seven to 10 thousand students per year. But in Nevada, the state's entire 62 percent share of the meager $8,339 in annual per-student spending (compared to the 2013 national average of $10,700) will be turned over to all families, rich or poor:

Under the law that Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed Tuesday, children must be enrolled in a public school for at least 100 days before they can receive a voucher. Low-income families or students with disabilities can receive the same amount the state spends per public school student, or an average of about $5,700, while middle- and upper-income families will receive slightly less, about $5,100 a year.

The result won't just be a massive taxpayer subsidy for more affluent families that regardless would have chosen private schools for their children. As the recent record shows, voucher programs don't just strangle funding for public schools, they provide life-saving cash injections into some dubious academies that would otherwise fail.
In Georgia, the state's $2,500 tax credit for donations to "nonprofit scholarship groups" to help poor and needy children turned into something else altogether. As the New York Times reported in 2012, "Most of the private schools are religious" and "nearly a quarter of the participating schools in Georgia require families to make a profession of religious faith, according to their Web sites." In the first year of Governor Bobby Jindal's voucher program in Louisiana, almost half of students attended private schools with a D or F rating. As the New Orleans Times Picayune detailed in November 2014, the voucher students performed poorly:

Of 126 private schools accepting the publicly funded tuition subsidies, 23 posted scores low enough to prevent them from accepting new voucher students next fall.

In some voucher states, the decades-long decline of Catholic schools has been arrested--at least temporarily--by the diversion of public dollars into Church coffers. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal in "Vouchers Breathe New Life into Shrinking Catholic Schools" explained the dynamic in Indiana:

Thanks to vouchers, St. Stanislaus, which was $140,000 in debt to the Catholic Diocese of Gary at the end of 2010, picked up 72 new students, boosting enrollment by 38%.
"God has been good to us," says Ms. [Principal Kathleen] Lowry. "Growth is a good problem to have."

But sometimes, growth isn't enough. Last month, Our Lady of Grace School nevertheless announced it would be the third Catholic institution to close in Louisiana despite the influx of taxpayer cash into the Archdiocese of New Orleans coffers:

This year, Our Lady of Grace enrolled only 173 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade - fewer than a single grade at some schools. By the end of the year, that enrollment had dropped to 158. Most of its students attended with financial assistance from publicly subsidized state vouchers.

Regardless, school vouchers promise to be a major issue in the 2016 elections. In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney pledged tax credits for home school parents and a $25 billion program of federal school vouchers. This year, most of the GOP White House hopefuls have not only endorsed vouchers, but are trying to outbid each other in winning over influential home school advocates in evangelical-heavy states like Iowa. And with friendly rulings from the Roberts Supreme Court, the future of American public education is clearly on the ballot next year.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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