OPINION: Vouchers defund public education, no matter what lawmakers tell you

Researcher says bills in House, Senate use bad facts to make bad-faith argument

T. Jameson Brewer is an assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of North Georgia. In this piece, he criticizes legislation in the Georgia House and Senate that would divert public funding to private schools through vouchers.

Senate Bill 47 is in Senate Rules and awaits a vote by the full Senate. House Bill 60 will be heard again by the House Education Committee at 1 p.m. Thursday.

Dr. Brewer is well equipped to discuss these two vouchers bill; his research interests include the privatization/marketization of public education.

By T. Jameson Brewer

Republicans in the Gold Dome have been pushing for the creation and expansion of private school vouchers for years.  They have tested ballot measures on the Republican primary ticket, have tried previous efforts aimed at creating a dual education system through vouchers, and are now attempting to strip public schools of their state appropriations to fund private school vouchers and to expand vouchers for students who now fall under the auspices of the federal IDEA law and 504 plans.

These attempts aimed at defunding public schools and providing a means to further segregate students along racial and class lines, as well as use a student’s qualification for special needs instruction as a basis for voucher eligibility only to strip them of federal protections once they enter private schools, is troubling.  And while we can agree that mechanisms that further segregate students along racial lines is morally bankrupt, these voucher bills, are not equitable, are open to abuse, as well as directly violate the state Constitution’s prohibition of public dollars being given to religious entities.

University of Georgia North Georgia professor T. Jameson Brewer

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In the event you only read this far, let me give you the key takeaways up front about vouchers:

Vouchers defund public schools. No matter how this reality is distorted or packaged, funding for schools is tied to enrollment. If students leave, funding decreases.

Private schools exacerbate racial segregation – namely through white students leaving diverse public schools.

The amount of the voucher would not necessarily cover the full cost of private school tuition, leaving families to pick up the rest of the tab…something non-affluent families cannot afford to do…thus exacerbating segregation along racial and class lines even more.

Vouchers do not provide for transportation and many private schools do not provide transportation, thus increasing the costs borne by the family.

Controlling for socioeconomic and other demographic factors constant, public schools actually outperform private schools.

Private schools are not beholden to public accountability.

The shifting of public tax money into private, often religious hands, violates the Establishment Clause of the United States constitution (for federal dollars) and also violates the Georgia State Constitution Article I, Section II, Paragraph VII prohibiting the shifting of public money into private religious hands.

Schools that dominantly serve Black and brown students receive $23,000,000,000 less per funding each year compared to schools that serve dominantly white students. We need mechanisms that provide more equitable funding for public schools, not schemes that increase more segregation and disparate funding that often falls along racial lines.

On House Bill 60, sponsored by state Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock:

One bad-faith argument being put forth by the bill’s supporters is that the use of vouchers would not reduce the funding that a public school receives. This requires the mental gymnastics of suggesting that while schools would lose the state appropriated funding for the student (that money constituting the voucher), the school would somehow continue to receive local and/or federal tax funding for that student, thus providing additional money to the school even though the school no longer has the expense of educating the student.

State Rep. Wes Cantrell’s public Facebook page claims that vouchers will not hurt public schools financially because “The annual contribution to this account [the voucher account] will be the state portion designated toward that student’s education. The school will get to keep roughly half of the student’s funding without having the expense of educating the child.”

This is a bad-faith argument that relies on the public believing that a school would continue to receive funding from local governments and the federal government to educate students that are no longer enrolled.

If the federal government through, say, Title I continued to provide funding year after year to a school for a student despite the fact that the student has taken a voucher to enroll in a private school, perhaps the argument would have merit. However, funding for schools is driven by student enrollment.

As such, after the state appropriated funds are removed from the public school and given to private, often religious, unaccountable coffers, the school would also cease to receive the other funding streams moving forward. With this cleareyed understanding, any attempt to suggest that vouchers do not reduce the overall funding of schools – and especially arguments that it somehow increases funding – should be dismissed as sleight-of-hand mythology.

The cost to operate a building, run school busses, pay custodial staff, etc. are largely fixed.  However, while these costs remain fixed, a reduction in overall funding, as students leave, increases the realized cost of the services.  The overall cost to keep the lights on in a classroom go up when there are less students sitting in the room but the lights must remain on anyway.

Overlooking the outright falsehoods about vouchers somehow magically increasing the funding a school receives for students it no longer educates, the proposed bill and its advocates continue to suggest, wrongly, that vouchers represent equitable access to schooling. Yet, the empirical research has shown, time and time again, that vouchers rarely cover the entire cost of private school tuition – making attendance still unattainable for the less-than-affluent family who cannot pay the bulk of the tuition bill that the voucher does not cover.

Because the majority of private schools do not provide transportation, families who opt to attend private schools must also pay for, and provide, their own reliable transportation – again, immediately excluding huge swaths of families and, namely, those who the bill purports to target. Because private school attendance, and the use of vouchers not being fully equitable, private schools exacerbate racial and class segregation significantly beyond our already segregated public schools. It is important to note, here, that the use of vouchers became a mainstay in the post-Brown v. Board era as a means for White families to avoid integration efforts and those specific efforts remain active both in the use of vouchers for private schools but also in the push for homeschooling.

Cantrell noted that “The ultimate accountability is still parental satisfaction.” Yet, because the proposed vouchers would provide funding for private schools that are in excess of what a parent, themselves, pays into the taxes that comprise the funding, other taxpayers who pick up the rest of the tab (the majority of it) would cease to have any legitimate oversight of how those public tax dollars are being spent and would no longer have any ability to hold the schools accountable since what is taught at private schools is beyond the purview of the public. 

Moreover, to the issue of private school curriculum being beyond the realm of accountability to the public, the use of public tax money to fund private schools and homeschooling that is dominantly religious in nature not only presents an additional layer of a lack of transparency but further removes public accountability for how their money is being spent – often against their own religious dispositions.  Any federal funding of vouchers (which at the moment, HB 60 does not include but it was advocated by President Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos who said the effort was to “build God’s kingdom”) very clearly violates the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. 

However, the proposed bill would violate the Georgia Constitution Article I, Section II, Paragraph VII: “Separation of church and state. No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult, or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution.” For political parties to have such a penchant for decrying the importance of adhering to the U.S. Constitution and State Constitutions, such blatant violations of the tenets of these documents remains ironic.

On Senate Bill 47, sponsored by Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega:

The other notable bill making its way through the Senate is SB 47 that seeks to expand the state’s school voucher bill for students with special needs known as the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act.  Contrary to HB 60, SB 47 is limited to students who qualify for an Individualized Education Program or Section 504 plan. And as others have pointed out, being placed on a 504 requires a much lower standard of admission and can open the door for abuse in terms of easy diagnosis as well as the bill not requiring ongoing re-evaluation of the designation, as is the case for students in public schools.

Generally speaking, outside of specialized private schools that cater to a specific group of students (say, a private school for the blind – which is mentioned in the bill), private schools, writ large, are not usually understood as providing niche services for students who are disabled or who qualify for 504 plans.  In fact, there has been much conversation at the national level about how private schools specifically do not often provide a full range of services for students with disabilities.

In addition to outlining the procedures for a parent to request and utilize a voucher to offset the tuition costs associated with private school attendance, the bill outlines a parent’s ability to choose a public school other than the one in which they are currently zoned.  While the language is unclear as to whether or not “public schools” here is to be understood as traditional public schools or if it also includes charter schools, the purpose of the bill as it relates to moving from public school to public school is fuzzy.  Because all public schools fall under the auspices of IDEA and 504, any shortfall in adequate services being provided could be remedied through the federal law.

Presently, though not without its own issues, public schools are required by the federal IDEA  and 504 law to provide any and all necessary services to students with disabilities as outlined by that student’s IEP or 504 Plan, lest they face punitive measures. 

As such, the expansion of school vouchers that move public funds into the coffers of private hands that are not legally obligated to follow federal law raises significant questions not only about what it means for such monies to flow into unaccountable hands but also what it means for the due process and legal rights of students and their parents that may, as a result, be forfeited. 

To that end, SB 47 explicitly acknowledges that “acceptance of a scholarship shall have the same effect as a parental refusal to consent to services pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”  This suggests that parents are voluntarily forfeiting all of the rights under IDEA, potentially compromising the quality of education their child will receive in the future.

Again, the shifting of public funds into the hands of other types of private schools often religious or parochial – regardless of the status of a student having an identified disability or not – should raise significant concerns about violating the Georgia Constitution, as well as what it means for the Legislature to openly press parents to forfeit their children’s rights under the federal IDEA law or open the door for abusing a 504 diagnosis – all in the service of what appears to be a Trojan horse for future voucher expansion.

In short, both bills seek to defund public schools, use that money to further segregate our state’s students along racial and class lines, create Trojan horses for future voucher expansion, force students to waive their legal rights, and move public funds into the hands of religious organizations – thus violating the state Constitution.