washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

April 12: Private School Voucher Plans Hit the Skids in Two Big GOP States

This sure looked like the year when all the “parental rights” rhetoric might give Republicans the boost they needed to enact the private school subsidies they’ve pursued for decades. But as I explained at New York, the drive to dismantle public schools has run into trouble in Georgia and Texas:

For longtime conservative enthusiasts for diverting public-education dollars into private schools (or home schools), the “parental rights” movement being embraced by Republicans across the country has been a godsend. With residual heartburn over COVID-19 restrictions on in-school instruction and fresh outrage over alleged “woke” teachers and administrators teaching kids about sex, gender identity and racism, the hoary cause of school vouchers has received a new impetus in many Republican-controlled states. That’s despite growing evidence that vouchers don’t tend to produce good educational outcomes, while undermining funding for public schools (including charter public schools that provide significant school choice).

While many jurisdictions have approved small voucher experiments, often aimed at special-education students with few public options, Republicans are now taking vouchers to a new level. Since last year, five states have made the leap to universal vouchers, which enable parents to pay for private-school tuition and/or offset homeschooling costs: Arizona in 2022 (though the state voted for Biden and two Democratic senators, the GOP controlled all three branches of state government until this year), followed by IowaUtahArkansas, and most recently Florida in 2023.

But now, rural Republican opposition to vouchers has stopped voucher proposals being backed vocally by two of the country’s most powerful GOP governors.

In Georgia, a major expansion of vouchers that Governor Brian Kemp put his considerable political heft behind unexpectedly lost when 16 mostly rural House Republicans voted against it; the bill lost by four votes and died for this session of the legislature. For one thing, many rural communities without private schools would be on the losing end of the funding shift. For another, past efforts by voucher fans to threaten Republican lawmakers with primary opposition appear to have backfired.

And now in Texas, another private-school subsidy initiative that Governor Greg Abbott has made his signature proposal for 2023 has encountered similar Republican opposition. Last week, the Texas House approved a budget amendment prohibiting use of public funds for private schools. Twenty-four Republicans — again, mostly from rural areas — voted with Democrats to give the funding amendment an 86-52 win. While the House has not yet dealt with a Senate-passed version of Abbott’s proposal, there’s no obvious path for overcoming bipartisan opposition.

These developments reinforce two big problems with vouchers aside from their poor record of improving educational results. First, as my colleague Jonathan Chait recently pointed out, most of the beneficiaries of voucher proposals have already abandoned public schools and are simply grasping for tax money to subsidize decisions they’ve already made, undermining the very idea of educational reform via school choice: “Providing vouchers didn’t give children choices; it simply sent checks to parents who were already privately educating their children.”

But second, voucher plans, and indeed the underlying philosophy that education is simply a publicly provided service for parents, ignores the civic role that public schools often play for parents and nonparents alike, particularly in rural areas. What urban and suburban conservatives may deplore as “government schools” are the glue in many small communities, as NBC News recently explained in a report from the small and intensely conservative West Texas town of Robert Lee during a track meet that drew fans to the public high school from around the area:

“It’s not just sporting events that make the school the center of the town’s identity. It’s where residents host potluck fundraisers to help pay a loved one’s medical bills, or gather for the annual Robert Lee BBQ Cookoff. There’s no gym or YMCA in Robert Lee, but the school weight room is open to the public in the evenings and on weekends. So is the playground. Lupe Torres, the school district’s head of maintenance and facilities, said he doubts many folks in Austin understand the indelible connection that rural Texans have to their public schools.”

Resident of towns like these also laugh at the idea their public schools are sinister transmission belts for “wokeness.”

Without question, Republicans won’t give up on vouchers anytime soon; too many big GOP donors and conservative Evangelical activists (who are often deeply committed to homeschooling) sincerely want to destroy traditional public schools. And again, there’s a built-in constituency of people already educating their kids privately for whom vouchers are simply a redistribution of taxpayer dollars in their favor. But it’s becoming clear that reframing the education debate as a battle between parents and unionized teachers and bureaucratic administrators hasn’t gotten rid of the idea that there’s something in public schools that the public values enough to preserve.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.