U.S. school chief: Vouchers in Georgia will create haves and have-nots

In Atlanta last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona told Atlanta Journal-Constitution editors and writers that vouchers for private schools are a threat to public education. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

In Atlanta last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona told Atlanta Journal-Constitution editors and writers that vouchers for private schools are a threat to public education. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

School leaders characterize the approaching expiration of federal COVID-19 relief aid as a worrisome fiscal cliff. America’s education chief Miguel Cardona prefers to describe it as a passing of the baton from the White House to states and local districts.

What will states and districts do with that baton? Will they embrace it and marshal their own resources to maintain post-pandemic recovery programs such as mental health counseling, summer learning classes and intensive tutoring?

Or will they drop the baton and let those programs crash to the floor?

In a meeting with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution education reporting team last week, Cardona, the U.S. secretary of education, acknowledged the trepidation among school districts across the country about depletion of the $130 billion in American Rescue Plan aid. But rather than seeing the ending as a financial gangplank, Cardona said the federal government was passing a baton to states and districts to “match the urgency of the president and vice president” around education funding.

Georgia received about $6 billion in federal school aid and must spend all of it by the end of the year. Much of it went to adding teachers and staff to address learning losses and mental health problems.

Evidence suggests that investment in staffing helped U.S. students rebound from pandemic learning gaps. In an international benchmarking test, the United States advanced in world rankings in reading, math and science, not because we jumped ahead of other nations but because their students saw greater declines. “That tells me the dollars that the president put forward prevented further fallback and assisted with recovery,” said Cardona.

It’s still not clear whether Georgia will keep up promising recovery programs, especially with a Legislature that appears determined to push through a sweeping voucher bill that will divert public dollars to private schools.

There is no credible evidence that statewide programs providing tax-funded vouchers for private school tuition improve academic outcomes. Such claims by Gov. Brian Kemp and voucher proponents in the Legislature are not supported by the reviews of state voucher programs including Indiana and Louisiana.

In a new poll by the AJC, about two-thirds of Georgia voters were savvy enough to realize the downside of vouchers, saying they oppose using public money to pay for private schools support.

Cardona criticizes the voucher movement as a direct attack on public education, saying proponents want to destroy it. “Let me be very clear: Voucher programs will destroy public education,” he said.

The secretary said the contentions that vouchers will not harm existing public schools are disingenuous. “If you look at a community that struggles to have students read by third grade, you’ll find that their teachers ... start at $39,000 a year. They are underfunded systems already. Now you take an underfunded district, take a percentage of dollars that go to those schools and pay for a voucher for a private school, what happens to that local neighborhood school? It has less resources. You are creating a system of haves and have-nots.”

Increasingly, research finds that vouchers — disguised in Senate Bill 233 as education savings accounts and scholarships — benefit middle-class families, not low-income households. That’s why several of the lawmakers pushing vouchers are not from poor communities but middle-class suburbs.

Rural lawmakers have been the firewall against a statewide voucher program in Georgia, arguing little benefit accrued to their communities where many parents value their local schools and where there aren’t private school options. The voucher advocates counter that once the tax spigot is turned on, private schools will pop up overnight throughout Georgia to claim a share.

That is, indeed, what happened in other states, according to longtime voucher researcher Joshua Cowen of Michigan State University. Vouchers fuel a rise in what Cowen calls “sub-prime providers,” small schools, often in church basements, that spring up to take advantage of vouchers but don’t deliver quality and disappear. For example, researchers who examined the pioneering Milwaukee voucher program launched in 1990 found 41% of the private schools that opened and accepted the vouchers between 1991 and 2015 failed.

The far-right game plan, which includes the privatization of education, is orchestrated and strategic, said Cardona.

“It is very intentional,” he said. “They create a new boogeyman every couple of years. It is a manufactured division, but at the end of the day, people think favorably about their child’s teacher and their child’s school.”