Arizona advances attack on public education with universal private school vouchers
Over the past two years, public education has faced unprecedented attacks and hostility originating from rightwing ideologues set on turning classrooms into culture war battlefields. The most recent campaigns against public schools have focused on critical race theory, transgender rights, and Covid-19 precautions, but are better understood as part of a decades-long crusade to shift people and funding towards private schools.
The policy known as “school choice” is the idea of providing public money to parents to send their children to private schools. While the concept originated in early America, due to the lack of a widespread public school system, the modern school choice movement has its roots in the mid-twentieth century pushback against racial desegregation.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools in Brown v. Board of Education. The aftermath across the country, but particularly in the South, was marked by white rage and defiance. We’re all familiar with the picture of 15-year-old African American girl Elizabeth Eckford being screamed at on her way to school in Little Rock, Arkansas, which is emblematic of the hostility to Brown. Lawmakers organized a legal opposition to desegregation, known as the Southern Manifesto, with some officials going as far as to shut down public schools altogether rather than integrate.
In a 1958 letter to Virginia school superintendents, Governor J Lindsay Almond Jr wrote: “I am solemnly and irrevocably committed to do everything within my power to defend and preserve public education for all of the children of the Commonwealth. Irrefutable evidence abundantly abounds that the mixing of the races in our public schools will isolate them from the support of our people, produce strife, bitterness, chaos and confusion to the utter destruction of any rational concept of a worthwhile public school system.”
Crucially, as part of this crusade to preserve segregation, lawmakers offered white parents tuition to send their children to private schools, largely unaffordable to Black families and free to racially discriminate against applicants. Virginia spearheaded the movement, but other states quickly followed, from Florida to Texas.
Not one to miss an opportunity to remake America on libertarian ideals, economist Milton Friedman began promoting “educational freedom” in 1955 as a codeword for privatizing education, fully aware that vouchers were being used to avoid school integration. Over the years, the right latched onto this neutral language to mask their intentions—whether that be white supremacy or the destruction of taxpayer-funded public schools.
Duke University Professor Nancy MacLean: Perhaps most tellingly, though, the ultimate purpose was not really to benefit parents and children, even the white ones who patronized the new segregation academies. For Friedman and the libertarians, school choice was and is a strategy to ultimately offload the burden of paying for education onto parents, thus harming the educational prospects of most youth. As we will see, Friedman himself hoped it would discourage low-income parents from having children in a form of economic social engineering reminiscent of eugenics. He predicted that once they had to pay the entire cost of schooling from their own earnings, they would make different reproductive decisions.
Today, we see the weaponization of language like “choice,” “rights,” and “freedom” influencing how people think about public schools, inciting parents to demand control over the curriculum, the teachers, their language, library books, and student bathrooms.
Voucher programs siphon money away from public schools, which have already experienced deep budget cuts over the past 15 years. There is an argument to be made that children in poorly-performing public school districts deserve a better education, but the answer is not to fund private schools at the expense of public education. Instead, lawmakers should increase the funding and resources available to public schools, raise teacher pay, and—critically—invest in the community to reduce poverty and create opportunity.
Arizona became the first state in the nation last week to offer all students government funded vouchers to attend private or religious schools. The Republican-controlled legislature approved the bill, HB 2853, after the state’s voters overwhelmingly rejected) the funding of private school choice in a 65-35% referendum.
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed HB 2853 into law on Thursday, calling it a “monumental moment” for Arizona students. “With this legislation, Arizona cements itself as the top state for school choice and as the first state in the nation to offer all families the option to choose the school setting that works best for them.” Previously, the state’s voucher program was limited to children with special needs, students at low-performing schools, military families, and residents of Native American reservations.
Opponents argue that the new law lacks financial and academic oversight, something state Democrats attempted to address in an amendment that Republicans shot down. “I’d like to know how many families that earn maybe a million dollars a year are getting voucher money versus how many families earning maybe 30 or 40,000 a year are getting voucher money,” state Sen. Christine Marsh (D) said. Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman likewise said the program “create[s] a vastly unequal system…with strict accountability for public schools and zero accountability for private vouchers.”
“The Republican universal voucher system is designed to kill public education,” tweeted former Arizona House Rep. Diego Rodriguez. “OUR nation’s greatness is built on free Public schools. The GOP goal is to recreate segregation, expand the opportunity gap, and destroy the foundation of our democracy.”
A West Virginia judge struck down a law last week that would have funneled state money into a program that incentivized families to pull their children out of public schools.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed House Bill 2013 into law last year, allowing students leaving the public school system to use $4,600 for costs associated with private school or homeschooling. According to state estimates, the program was expected to cost over $23 million by the start of the 2022-2023 school year and could ramp up to at least $102 million by 2027 with the inclusion of students who already attend private schools.
Three parents, backed by the West Virginia Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools, brought a lawsuit against the state in January. “Parents are free to choose whatever type of education they want for their children,” the plaintiffs argue. “But the State’s founders made explicit in the Constitution that the State must—and may only—fund and support a system of public schools. Anything that exceeds or frustrates this mandate is unconstitutional.”
The Voucher Law also affirmatively incentivizes families of students currently enrolled in the public school system to leave that system, wreaking havoc on public school resourcing. Because state funding for public education is based in large part on student enrollment, the Voucher Law will result in a significant reduction in public school funding. This reduction in funding will occur without a reduction in fixed costs—libraries, administration, maintenance, and numerous other expenses that do not decrease with each individual student who takes a voucher. Moreover, because private schools generally cost more than the voucher amount, they will be used by more affluent families. And, because private schools are frequently unwilling and/or unable to serve students with disabilities, these students largely will not use the vouchers. As a result, the public schools will have fewer funds to educate a higher proportion of students with the most significant needs—including students from low-income families and students with disabilities—who are among the most expensive to educate.
Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Joanna Tabit agreed, issuing an injunction that prevents the voucher program from taking effect. House Bill 2013 “provides that our state legislature has a duty to provide a thorough and efficient system of free schools for the children of West Virginia, and the legislature can take no action to frustrate that obligation,” Tabit said.
The victory for voucher opponents may only be temporary, however. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey plans to appeal Tabit’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.