Opinion: Voucher bill is not ‘neutral.’ It will hurt Georgia public schools

T. Jameson Brewer is an assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of North Georgia. In this column, Brewer cites the risks to public education from voucher bills gaining steam in the Georgia Legislature. 

As the AJC reports today, the first of two voucher bills introduced this session in the Legislature passed out of a Senate committee Thursday with the blessing of Gov. Brian Kemp. (For another view on vouchers, go here.)

The story notes: 

A push for state funds to be used for private school tuition and school expenses has increased odds of passing this year as both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly consider nearly identical bills that have the support of Gov. Brian Kemp’s floor leaders.

If either bill becomes law, it’ll be the first time that the general population of public school students would be eligible to go to a private school with a tuition subsidy straight from the state.

With that background, here is Dr. Brewer’s column: 

By T. Jameson Brewer 

As was recently reported, there are dual efforts under the Gold Dome to push for sweeping school voucher bills in Georgia. Vouchers are the mechanism by which public tax dollars allocated to public schools are shifted into the hands of private schools to offset the costs of private individual tuition. 

As an education policy researcher primarily focused on understanding the impacts of privatization in education, I can tell you there are a few overarching realities associated with school vouchers: (1) they are unquestionably unconstitutional; (2) they defund public schools; (3) they exacerbate racial and class segregation; and (4) the research continues to show that the results are not beneficial.  

In 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled vouchers as unconstitutional as they shifted state funding to private religious schools – violating the norms of separation between church and state. While the ruling was challenged, those challenges ended last year as the court upheld its decision.

As the Trump administration, by way of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, seeks to create national policies in support of widespread vouchers, they and those under the Gold Dome here in Atlanta should keep in mind that the funding – or establishment – of a religion is a clear violation of the United States Constitution’s Establishment Clause.  

Private religious schools are, well, religious and shifting public funds into the coffers of such organizations not only imperils public education writ large, there can be no clearer example of a violation of the Establishment Clause. Our founding fathers sought to avoid a theocracy and championed religious freedom.

Public dollars are, by their very nature, public and demand public oversight and accountability. No public accountability exists over the private sector, religious or otherwise.  

Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, the lead sponsor of the Senate version, suggested his proposed voucher bill is “revenue neutral.” And while he is technically correct that the proposal will not cost more in terms of what the state spends on education, the use of vouchers to siphon money away from public schools is not a “revenue neutral” proposition to the school districts that serve a majority of our state’s students. 

According to the bill, vouchers in the state will siphon away $48 million during the first year and may rise as high as $543 million in 10 years. It is worth noting the state withheld $9 billion from public schools over the last 15 years. When voters hear proposals in favor of school vouchers and charter schools what they should hear is an attempt to defund public schools. 

In my professional experience, I often hear parents beating on their chest claiming, “it’s my kid, it’s my money” as a policy rationale for tax dollars following students into the private sector. And while a child clearly falls under their parent’s sovereignty, the funding for vouchers often does not. That is, in cases where a voucher provides a funding value equal to what the state has allocated for a child, only a small portion of that money comes from the parent themselves through taxes. 

In 2016, Georgia provided an average of $9,769 per student to public schools.  The median property tax paid last year by homeowners was $1,346 (not all of which went to public schools as it also funded police, fire, libraries, roads, etc.). 

If vouchers in Georgia exceed the tax contribution of an individual family, then vouchers require the tax dollars of six to seven other families who will have their tax dollars diverted into the hands of private religious organizations that they may not wish to fund or establish. 

In some cases the value of a voucher often does not cover the full cost of tuition. As a result, the voucher becomes a state-funded subsidy as a parent must pay the remaining balance of their child’s tuition costs. As a result, the only families who can afford to benefit from vouchers are the relatively affluent who can pick up the remaining balance and provide the individual transportation to and from school. 

This, on the face of it, shows how vouchers exacerbate segregation – a reality that has been shown over and over again in the peer-reviewed literature on the topic. Peer-reviewed literature has also found that the academic results of school vouchers are often overstated, are not always positive, and rarely translate across different contexts. Additionally, when statistically controlling for income, public schools outperform all iterations of private schools.

 While vouchers and charter schools are often championed under the language of equality – particularly for impoverished students of color – decades of research show that school choice schemes have been used primarily to self-segregate along racial lines following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board to integrate schools. 

Vouchers have been championed both privately and publically as a mechanism by which whites could avoid integration mandates, and the years following the release of A Nation at Risk under the Reagan administration seeking to characterize public schools as failing have given shelter for more insidious justifications to move away from public schools. 

The citizens and students of Georgia need our support for public schools – access to them is an obligation to the state constitution. Vouchers not only challenge and violate this legal commitment to our students but they violate the United States Constitution, defund public schools in favor of ideological fads with claims that are not borne out in the research literature, and exacerbate segregation – something, I think, we can all agree is worth avoiding. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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