Peter Greene

School vouchers have been a disaster. Advocates want to rename them

Although a sizable number of Republican candidates in the 2022 midterm elections who were counting on school vouchers to be a winning issue—including Tudor Dixon in Michigan, Kari Lake in Arizona, and Tim Michels in Wisconsin—went down to defeat, school vouchers are not about to go away. Voucher advocates are instead changing the name and pushing for education savings accounts (ESAs).

This article was produced by Our Schools.

ESAs are legal in around 10 states so far, but if this new idea for promoting school choice hasn’t already been proposed in your state, it may be appearing there soon. Here’s what education savings accounts are, how they work, and what policymakers and families in your state should consider before rushing headlong into adopting this idea.

What Are ESAs?

Education savings accounts are a kind of super-voucher. While traditional vouchers give parents a chunk of taxpayer money that they could use for tuition at the school of their choice, an ESA gives parents a chunk of taxpayer money that they can spend on private school tuition or a variety of other educational expenses.

Tennessee’s ESA law offers a typical list of eligible expenses that not only include private school tuition and fees but also textbooks, school uniforms, tutoring, transportation to and from school, computer software, tech devices, summer school tuition, and tuition and fees at a postsecondary school.

ESAs provide a wider range of choices—and a wider range of ways for vendors to get their hands on education tax dollars without having to open a whole school to get voucher money.

ESAs also provide political cover. Vouchers have frequently been rejected by voters, so voucher proponents, on Twitter and in legislative discussions, have opted not to use the label of “voucher” for ESAs. They may further try to sweeten the rebranding by using terms such as “education scholarship accounts” and “education freedom accounts.”

The money comes to parents by way of a company hired to handle these funds. Step Up for Students and ClassWallet are two examples of these “scholarship management” companies. These companies handle the actual disbursement of the monies, often through debit cards; they also take a cut of the funding.

Where Does ESA Money Come From?

Funding for an ESA program can come from several different paths.

One pathway is via tax credit programs that allow corporations and individuals to contribute directly to “scholarship” funding while getting a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed this on a national scale with her failed Education Freedom Scholarships.

Proponents like to say that tax credit funding does not involve any government spending, which is technically correct because the money never touches government hands. But because it is a tax credit, it does cost the taxpayers. A million dollars in tax credit scholarships means $1 million of revenue the government does not get, leaving a hole that must be made up either by raising taxes or cutting other state and federal programs. Kentucky set up tax credit scholarships to fund its ESA program; the tax credit scholarship program was thrown out in December 2022 by the state’s supreme court for being “unconstitutional.

Another pathway to ESA funding comes from new laws enacting “backpack funding,” where per-pupil funding that would have gone to the student’s home school district goes to the student’s ESA instead. This can be particularly damaging in states like Arizona, where the money is pulled from the student’s assigned district even if the student has always attended private school. In other words, the school’s operating revenue is reduced by the per-pupil funding, but its operating costs are reduced by zero dollars.

ESAs can also be funded by taking the money off the top of the state’s education budget, meaning the costs of the vouchers hit all school districts, whether they have students choosing vouchers or not.

In addition, a suggestion was made that pandemic relief funds be distributed via ESA-style programs (Oklahoma was one state that tried it).

GOP legislators have also tried to propose that federal funding intended for poor students or students with special needs, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), be turned into school voucher programs, a particularly ironic proposal, as students usually give up their rights under IDEA when they move out of the public education system. This repurposing of federal funding for education will no doubt become part of the rhetoric used for ESA funding.

How Are Tax Dollars in ESA Spent?

Tracking how tax dollars are spent in ESA programs is difficult if not impossible because these programs have hardly any accountability.

ESAs, like vouchers, have proven to be a way to use public tax dollars to fund private religious schools. In fact, in states where voucher programs exist, vouchers primarily fund religious schools (particularly Catholic ones). While the separation of church and state, when it comes to education, is already being increasingly whittled away, ESAs, like vouchers, allow states to circumvent that wall entirely.

Further, there are few checks in place to ensure that ESA money is spent on legitimate education expenses. In Arizona, parents spent $700,000 of their ESA money on beauty supplies, clothes, and other questionable expenses. In Oklahoma, pandemic relief funds were disbursed ESA-style, and when news broke that about half a million dollars in funds had been used to buy things like Christmas trees, gaming consoles, and outdoor grills, the state passed the buck.

Ryan Walters, who was just elected as Oklahoma’s education chief, bragged that the private sector would be a “more efficient way” to handle the funds, and he gave ClassWallet freedom to administer the state’s ESA program. But ClassWallet has admitted that it has “neither responsibility for, nor authority to exercise programmatic decision making with respect to the program or its associated federal funds and did not have responsibility for grant compliance.” In other words, nobody is checking to see how the money is really spent.

In most ESA programs, parents can select from an official list of vendors. One might assume that such a list would include vendors that have been screened to make sure that they are qualified providers of high-quality materials and instruction, but one would be wrong. In many states, a vendor is included in the list after simply meeting some very basic requirements. Tennessee’s ESA program leaves oversight of education vendors✎ EditSign largely up to the management of its private contractor. Arizona’s ESA program doesn’t even have✎ EditSign a list of approved schools, vendors, or providers, leaving the destination of taxpayer funding up to the “discretion” of the account holder.

The argument is that free market forces will keep vendors in line and that parents’ ability to make choices will work better than government regulations. One might also argue that the Food and Drug Administration should be shut down and the market should be allowed to regulate food manufacturing behavior. If a company gets sloppy or cheap and starts producing poisoned food, the market will correct it. All we have to do is let some consumers be poisoned in the process.

Not only are taxpayers’ interests unguarded in ESA systems, but parent and student interests are unguarded as well. Parents have to navigate an unregulated marketplace, an asymmetrical market where sellers have far more information than buyers, and where marketing materials take the place of useful information.

What Risks Do ESAs Pose to Students and Families?

Whether school choice advocates are pushing vouchers or ESAs, they frequently fail to mention the most fundamental issue for students and their families—private schools do not have to admit anyone they don’t wish to admit, either by placing various barriers in the way (not offering transportation or meals) or by simply putting restrictions in place.

That was one of the takeaways from Carson v. Makin, a Supreme Court decision that declared that Maine must allow voucher money to go to religious private schools, even if they are clearly discriminatory. Many ESA laws include a sort of non-interference clause that declares that accepting voucher money does not make the school a state actor, and the state may in no way dictate to the school how it will operate. In other words, they may teach what they want and discriminate as they like, even if they accept taxpayer dollars. Students with special needs, as well as LGBTQIA+ students, find they may have far fewer “choice” options than others.

ESA programs fail to protect students in other important ways. Should a family run out of ESA money, or find that they’ve been bilked by a bad vendor, or even be dumped by a vendor that goes out of business midyear, there are no real protections for families of students. Some school choice advocates have suggested that this risk would be minimized by providing third-party consumer reviews via a service like Yelp. But generally, it’s assumed that the invisible hand of the market, wearing its caveat emptor ring, is supposed to do the job of quality oversight.

In one striking example, an ESA bill proposed in Utah in 2022 included a requirement that parents sign a statement that they “assume full financial responsibility for the education” of their child. That means if they run out of voucher money or get left high and dry by a bad vendor or find the vendor incompetent, they are on their own. Presumably, in such a situation, a student would have no recourse but to return to a public school, though that school might get zero funding for that student.

Do ESAs Improve Education Results?

Most importantly, study after study shows that voucher programs in all their forms do not foster excellence in education. ESAs are a newer creation and so have been studied less, but given that the ESA system has even fewer guardrails than traditional vouchers, there’s no reason to think that the educational results would be any better.

In any case, under ESA, poor educational outcomes would be the parents’ problem, and the solutions we’ve seen for this problem are grim.

For instance, some voucher proponents (including DeVos) suggest a low-cost use for vouchers would be microschools, in which a handful of students gather in someone’s home around a computer with some online lessons while an adult “coach” keeps an eye on things. It’s not anyone’s first choice for a great education, but if that’s what you can afford—well, enjoy your choice.

That is the heart of voucher programs, whether you call them vouchers or education savings accounts or freedom scholarship accounts; they get the government out of the school business and turn education into a commodity that is the responsibility of parents alone. In voucher world, the state hands you your debit card and washes its hands of you. “Enjoy your freedom, and good luck.” And if an excellent education is not readily available because the ESA money is inadequate or your child has special needs, and your local public school is struggling with reduced funding, well, that’s your problem.

It’s all about the three D’s—disrupt, defund, and dismantle. Call the voucher system whatever you would like, but it is about reducing education from a public good and shared societal responsibility to a simple consumer good.

Author Bio: Peter Greene was a classroom secondary English teacher in Pennsylvania for more than 39 years and is a senior contributor at Forbes. Follow him on Twitter @palan57.

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It happened again. This time in Milwaukee. Students at the Universal Academy for the College Bound Webster Campus returned to find themselves in a completely different school, because a charter management company had decided they’d rather move on than finish out their contract for the year.

Universal Companies took with them their books and their technology. Milwaukee Public Schools filled in the gaps and the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association ― you know, that damn union that only worries about adult interests ― stepped in to help the staff.

It could have been worse. In other places it has been worse. The company gave MPS a warning ahead of time ― almost a full month’s notice. And they handed the school back to MPS rather than simply locking the door.

And if you’re thinking, “Well, of course they did that ― what sort of monster would close a building with no notice,” then you haven’t been following charter schools much. Charters don’t have to explain themselves when they close, like these two closures in Indiana â€• parents demanded an explanation and were ignored. Or this similar story from Philly. And these schools at least finished the year ― here’s a charter that closed up shop in September. Here’s a story about a charter in North Carolina that had to close mid-year mostly because they got caught lying about enrollment in order to get double the money they were entitled to; parents were informed less than 48 hours before the school closed its doors. Here’s a Florida school that closed suddenly and without explanation in May of a school year. Or this Ohio charter that closed mid-year without warning. Just google “charter school closes unexpectedly” and watch the stories pile up.

But those are anecdotes. If you want to see the big picture, look at this reporting from the Center for Media and Democracy’s Mediawatch that took some simple available data from NCES to show how many charters had closed between 2000 and 2013. There’s an interactive map that lets you drill down, but the grand total is in the neighborhood of 2,500. Two-thousand-five-hundred charter schools closed ― and that’s not counting the schools from the past several years. That includes schools that closed during the school year or schools that folded at the end of the year.

Or the recent report on charter schools from NEA, which shows what percentage of charters have closed as a function of how many years they’ve been open ― after one year, 5% of charters have been closed. At ten years, it’s 33%. When we get to thirteen years, 40% of charters have shut their doors. In other words, a third of charter schools close their doors before they are a decade old.

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Commitment.

But modern charters are not public schools, and they do not make a public school commitment to stay and do the work over the long haul. They are businesses, and they make a business person’s commitment to stick around as long as it makes business sense to do so. That does not make them evil, but it does make them something other than a public school. And it underlines another truth ― students are not their number-one priority.

Some modern charter operators claim that these school closures are a feature, not a bug. The system is working; the invisible hand is weeding the garden. But that ignores the real disruption and confusion and damage done to children and families that must search from school to school. Instead of the excitement and joy of going back to school to see friends and favorite teachers, students face the uncertainty of not knowing which school they’ll attend, how long they’ll attend it, learning their way around, even as they wonder when this will all happen again. If school is a sort of second family, charter schools can be an unstable family that moves every six months with parents always on the verge of divorce.

Some charters are born to be train wrecks ― not only do educational amateurs get involved in charter schools, but business amateurs do as well. But very few are born with the intention of lasting for generation after generation, which is exactly what we expect of public schools. When Betsy DeVos says that she values families and choice over institutions, this is exactly what she is rejecting ― a commitment to stand by those families and communities for generations, to be an institution that brings stability and continuity to a community. More importantly, an institution that says, “When you need us, we will be right here. You can count on us, because we are committed.”

Commitment matters in all relationships. It matters in schools. Parents and students and community members and taxpayers have a right to expect commitment from their schools. If charters want to pretend to be public schools, they should step up and make a commitment greater than, “We’ll be right here as long as it suits us. On the day it doesn’t suit us anymore, we’ll be gone. Good luck to you.”

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How bad is it, really?

Here’s how bad. Erie, Pennsylvania— not exactly a teeming metropolis, but not exactly a one horse town, either— is considering closing all of its high schools. Yes, at a meeting last week, the district’s leaders were asked to consider if it might be more doable to just send all of Erie’s teenagers to neighboring school districts.

The district is looking at a $4.3 million gap, and like many districts in PA, it has no possible response except to cut, “including eliminating sports, extracurricular activities, art and music programs, district libraries, and the district’s police department.” Plus cutting various administrative positions out the wazoo.

PA Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has taken a look at Erie finances and determined that the crappy state funding formula and the loss of money to charters are a huge part of the problem. DePasquale has actually been saying this a great deal, all over the state, because from Erie to Philadelphia,  bad funding and a terrible charter law are guttting school finance.

It is, of course, the same death spiral visible across the country. If Erie does hang in there, how well can the public schools compete with the charters if the public schools must cut all sorts of services? This is one of the most baloney-stuffed parts of the Free Market Competition Mantra — competition will spur Erie schools to become greater and more competitive by stripping them of the resources they need just to function. Is that how it’s supposed to work? That is Erie Superintendent Jay Badams’ question — is it worth keeping Erie high schools open if they can’t offer any of the programs available in other region schools?

No, this is how charter eat public schools from the inside out, like free market tapeworms. The more the eat, the weaker public schools become, and the weaker public schools become, the more charters can attack them and eat more.

Superintendent Badams has been trying his damndest to be heard in Harrisburg, and he’s been known to fling some rhetoric before (back in February, he was predicting that Erie schools would go bankrupt), so it’s possible that he’s hyperbolizing a tad for effect, in the vain hope of getting someone in our dysfunctional state capital to a) pay attention and b) care.

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The charter- and-finances-induced death spiral, the disaster capitalism approach to gutting public schools, puts us that much closer to a world where we could meet grown adults who say, “Yeah, I wanted to finish high school, but I couldn’t find a place that would take me.” Instead of drop-outs, we will have push-outs, students who didn’t just fall through the cracks, but who were deliberately pushed through them.

The bulldozing of public schools in order to make room for the free market presumes that the free market has the chops to absorb what the public system turns loose. What if we burn down the public school to make room for a shiny charter, and all we end up with is a vacant lot? The biggest danger of a botched conversion to a charter choice system is not that we’d end up with a bad charter choice system, but that a city could end up with no system at all.

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How Do Charter Schools Succeed? By Cutting Loose Students Who Aren't Good Enough

I worry about the ballast.

Charter fans brag about their successes. They tell the starfish story. They will occasionally own that their successes are, in fact, about selecting out the strivers, the winners, the students who are, in fact, their own children and allowing them to rise. And it is no small thing that many students have had an opportunity to rise in a charter setting.

But I worry about the ballast.

How do these lucky few rise? The charter doesn't have better teachers. In many cases the charter doesn't have a single pedagogical technique or instructional program that is a bit different from its public school counterparts. What it has is a concentration of students who are supported, committed, and capable.

Those students are able to rise because the school, like the pilot of a hot air balloon, has shed the ballast, the extra weight that is holding them down. It's left behind, abandoned. There's no plan to go back for it, rescue it somehow. Just cut it loose. Let it go. Out of sight, out of mind. We dump those students in a public school, but we take the supplies, the resources, the money, and send it on with the students we've decided are Worth Saving.

This may be why the charter model so often involves starting over in another school-- because the alternative would be to stay in the same school and tell Those Students, the ones without motivation or support or unhindered learning tools, to get out. As those students were sent away so that strivers could succeed, it would just be too obvious that we are achieving success for some students by discarding others.

The ballast model is an echo of a common attitude about poverty. If you are poor, it's because you chose badly, because you didn't try hard enough, because you don't have grit, because you lack character, because you deserve to be poor. Insert story here of some person who was born poor and use grit and determination and hard work to become successful, thereby proving that anyone who is still poor has nobody to blame but himself. Just repeat that narrative, but instead of saying "if you are poor" say "if you are a poor student."

This is a societal model based on discarding people. This is a school model based on discarding students.

Because  after all, if a student is failing, that is because the student is faulty, or possibly the teacher. Even learning disabilities, we've been told, have no effect on the student's achievement if the teacher's expectations are high and the student has grit.

So I guess that makes it okay to discard the ballast, the extra weight that is holding the Better People back.

I repeat-- it is no small thing that some students are carried aloft, lifted high among the clouds in that basket of high achievement.

But I keep thinking of the ballast. Somebody cuts a rope, and the heavy bag goes rocketing downward, plummeting to earth and disappear in a cloud of impact far below. Except they aren't just bags of dirt. They are human beings.

That's the charter model. Cut loose all the dead weight, all the students who aren't good enough, who cost to much time and trouble and money to lift up. This is one more reason that public school folks remain unimpressed by charter "success"-- we always knew that cutting loose the ballast would help everyone else, but our mandate is to lift everyone, not just the chosen few.

Maybe cutting loose the ballast is necessary. Maybe we've decided that's how school should work now. But we should at least be honest and have that discussion, not just cut the ballast loose while nobody is paying attention and then declare, "Well, look, we're headed up now. It's like magic!" If we're going to abandon ten students in order to rescue one, we need to talk about whether or not we're okay with that. We might even have conversation about getting a bigger balloon, one with enough lift to carry everyone and not just the chosen few.

I am glad that a few more students are being lifted up, and that is no small thing. But still, I worry about the ballast.

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Is Early Reading a Problem?

Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Foundation (a thinky tank deeply devoted to the Common Core) appeared on US News this week to stick up for the Common Core's demand that kindergartners learn to read.

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Why Aren't We Talking About Teacher Retention?

To hear some folks talk about tenure, you would think that one of the biggest issues facing education is a glut of teachers, a veritable mountain of wrinkled old classroom geezers blocking the career paths of a million Bright Young Things who are itching to get into the classroom. Oh, if only tenure and FILO didn't allow them to sit there in lumpen uselessness while hot young blood congeals somewhere else, unused potential unrealized.

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