Opinion: Ballot question reveals Republican zeal for school vouchers

A University of North Georgia professor contrasts the uniting of Americans to combat the pandemic with the unrelenting Republican effort to expand vouchers in Georgia.
A University of North Georgia professor contrasts the uniting of Americans to combat the pandemic with the unrelenting Republican effort to expand vouchers in Georgia.

Professor: GOP attack on education as a public good shows we are not all in this together

T. Jameson Brewer is an assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of North Georgia. Jameson was named as the Fieldale Scholar award recipient and received the Teaching Excellence Award in 2019 for the College of Education at the University of North Georgia.

In a guest column today, Brewer cites the contrast of Americans uniting to combat the pandemic and the Republican campaign to expand vouchers in Georgia.

By T. Jameson Brewer

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the world in which we live through shelter-in-place orders, social distancing, increasing economic turmoil, rising unemployment, and temporary digital learning among a myriad of other new realities.

In my view, despite what has decidedly been a tumultuous few months marked by a significant loss of life, what has brought us all together (well, no closer than 6-feet, of course) has been the resounding efforts of first-responders, doctors and nurses, scientists, educators, and all of the other professions and individuals that place the collective and the benefit of others first in their minds and in their work.

Viral videos of quarantined residents joining in song and distanced parades and graduation ceremonies abound and draw us in as we identify with the importance of the other and the public good. Specifically, while this pandemic has wrought despair, we will prevail because we recognize that we are in this fight together and understand that preventative measures such as masks and social distancing are not singularly about what is best for us as individuals, but all of us as a society.

Dr. T. Jameson Brewer
Dr. T. Jameson Brewer

This concept of the public and common good has long been the animating feature of our nation’s public schools in their service and maintenance of our democracy. The future landscape of our public health will be reliant on our working together and our continued success as a country and here in Georgia rests with the same commitment to public schools.

Yet, despite this opportunity to draw closer together with a doubling down of our commitment to others –- particularly to our future generations through education –- this commitment may be met with a new manufactured crisis in the form of continued legislative efforts to defund public schools in favor of private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling.

With early voting beginning today, voters opting for the Republican primary ballot will be asked, in misleading language (as is often the case with most ballot questions), if there is support for defunding public schools in order to provide state (e.g., public) allocated funds to be dispersed to individual families to use to help offset the costs of attending a private school or homeschool.

The question reads: "Should Georgia lawmakers expand educational options by allowing a student's state education dollars to follow to the school that best fits their needs, whether that is public, private, magnet, charter, virtual or homeschool?"

The question elevates the importance of the individual over the possible detriment of the other. It is often the case that market-reform supporters claim that “it’s my kid, it’s my tax money” and that the money should “follow” the student to, say, a private religious school of their choosing.

Yet, this would require the tax money from six to seven other families who may or may not support their money being used to bolster the coffers of a church. It is this possibility that gave rise to the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution and Blaine Amendments across most of the states.

Given that it would remove funding from public schools, those students remaining in those schools would suffer as a result of disregarding the public concept of public funding and public education. Considering that few charter schools or private schools offer transportation and often charge tuition above the state allocation of a voucher, the only families that such laws benefit are the relatively affluent, and often white.

And that has long been a feature, not a bug, of vouchers as they became popular following Milton Friedman's push for them in his quest to elevate individualism and markets while they have long been favored to avoid racial integration orders following the Brown v. Board decision – all the while subsidized by state funds.

While the state Senate failed to pass a voucher bill last year, the question here suggests that state GOP leaders are interested in gauging support for reviving those efforts. While the language takes advantage of commonsensical language about “best fits their needs” what is lost here is are the policy realities of such a prospective law.

As I wrote last year, vouchers shift publicly allocated funds out of public coffers and public oversight into private hands that offer no representation or oversight and accountability. The money allocated per student requires the tax dollars of numerous households such that moving the public funds away from public oversight strips numerous taxpayers of direct input and oversight into how their tax dollars are being spent.

Imagine a variance of the ballot question that read: "Should Georgia lawmakers expand country club options by allowing state parks and recreation dollars to follow to the private country club that best fits an individual family's needs, whether that is a golf club, a club that focuses on tennis, or a golf and tennis country club that is operated by a religious organization with overt religious activities?"

Our collective society would hardly tolerate such a ballot question that suggested moving money that supports public parks to the benefit of the full public in favor of individuals or the motivations behind moving public funds into private and/or religious hands.

Decades of research on school vouchers is clear: they exacerbate racial and economic segregation and, by and large, do not result in better student outcomes. The actual use of a voucher is not accessible to all families as most are not able to cover the costs that vouchers do not (e.g., excess tuition, transportation costs, etc.). Vouchers that would provide funds for homeschooling would, likewise, not expand the opportunity to families who cannot forgo a parental salary and would, also, shift public funds into supporting curriculum that is often overtly religious.

What vouchers, and this ballot question do, is highlight the deleterious effects of individualism at the expense of the other which should be a disposition we as Americans intrinsically reject but should especially reject in a post-COVID world where our commitment and obligation to each other and to the least of these should be fresh on our minds.

About the Author