Sandra Jones

The defeat of a school voucher program reveals the truth within the 'school choice' debate

The momentum for education savings accounts is increasing across the country, and public education advocates say they will endanger neighborhood schools.

When Republicans in the Virginia State Legislature renewed their proposal to enact legislation to create a new school voucher program in the state—previous attempts were vetoed by Democratic governors in 2016 and 2017—they said their effort was to “push to strengthen parental rights and expand educational opportunities,” according to the Virginia Mercury. But when it came time to vote on these proposals in February 2023, a majority of Virginia lawmakers thought otherwise and voted the school choice proposals down.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

A bill that Republican lawmakers were especially keen on, House Bill 1508, would have created the Virginia Education Success Account Program, which “would allow parents to set up a savings account funded with state dollars that could be used to cover educational expenses at private schools in Virginia,” the Virginia Mercury reported.

The proposal is an example of a new breed of school choice laws that have been enacted in 10 states so far. The so-called education savings accounts (ESAs) essentially work like school vouchers that have long been a priority for right-wing conservatives and libertarians, according to Our Schools reporter Peter Greene.

Despite the proposals for the new voucher program going down in both the Virginia House and Senate, proponents of the bill are far from discouraged, according to a February 2023 article in the Virginia Mercury. “I think people are still learning and getting their minds around what ESAs are and how they work and making sure that they don’t harm public schools,” said Rachel Adams, director of external affairs for Americans for Prosperity Virginia, a libertarian conservative advocacy group that advocated for the bill. “We’ll be back next year doing the same thing,” she said.

But the reluctance of Virginia lawmakers to go forward with this idea shows where opposition to this form of school choice is coming from and calls into question just who these proposals would create “opportunities” for, and how they would impact local schools that the vast majority of parents choose to send their children to.

A ‘Test-and-Punish System’

For Kathy Beery, a retired educator with Harrisonburg City Public Schools, bringing education savings accounts to Virginia meant the exact opposite of what proponents of the new law said it would result in. “It means that children will not receive the educational opportunities that others will receive in other parts of the state,” she told Our Schools. The “other parts of the state” that Beery referred to are metropolitan areas like Richmond, where education choices are abundant, versus rural communities where education advocates believe that efforts to enact more school choice will harm the local schools they value.

Beery is a member of Virginia Educators United and a strong advocate for public education, especially for parents and kids in rural districts. “For rural communities,” she said, “the schools are the center of community connections. To lose their schools means losing sports, bands, [school] plays, and friendships that support the community.”

Beery, who has been on the front lines in the fight against public school privatization, believes that these proposals could have a detrimental impact on rural schools that are already experiencing financial stress.

“Without the needed resources, students [left in the public school system] will do poorly on state standardized tests [which makes the schools more vulnerable to] takeovers and privatization,” Beery said. She described this as a “test-and-punish system.”

Miles away in the largely rural county of Roanoke, Laura Bowman shares a similar sentiment. “This is a horrifying attempt to undermine not only public schools but [also] the entire teaching profession,” she said. Bowman described supporters of the Virginia Education Success Account Program as “monied interests [who] never let a crisis go to waste, and the recent pandemic is no exception.”

Bowman, who has served as president of the Roanoke County Council of PTAs and chairman of the Roanoke County Public Schools Parent Advisory Council, has spent more than a decade advocating for the health, safety, education, and well-being of children.

She too described Virginia’s school assessment policies as a “test-and-punish” system and added, “The results of those corporate-provided tests—not local assessments, report cards, and graduation rates—are used to give weight to the school choice argument. By focusing on the standardized test scores of students who live in under-resourced communities, the privatizers assert that public schools are the problem, not the circumstances the children in those communities live in.”

Bowman also questioned how widely applicable the new voucher program’s opportunities would be. “I live in a more rural part of Virginia,” she said. “Whether [the voucher is] $5,000 or $6,300, it isn’t going to get a student in the door of my local private schools,” for a variety of reasons (there are fewer local private schools, the cost per student is higher than in a metropolitan area with more existing school options and resources, etc.).

Bowman noted that voucher advocates who acknowledge the cost differences between tuition at high-quality private schools compared to what a voucher would cover are advocating for so-called “microschools” that allow families to pool their voucher money to form a small school with other parents. She countered, “This assumes there are adults who are able to be at home with the kids and who can, one, effectively teach kids essential ideas and skills and, two, ensure that the content is going to be centered on factual information and will help the student succeed post high school.”

While advocates for the voucher program might argue that not all private schools do a disservice to students and their communities, consider the potential harms of scaling up the known worst cases that so far have resulted from a lack of regulatory oversight that guides public schools. In January 2023, Vice broke a shocking story about an Ohio homeschool Telegram channel with “thousands of members” that “openly embraced Nazi ideology and promoted white supremacy, while proudly discouraging parents from letting their white children play with or have any contact with people of any other race. Admins and members use racist, homophobic, and antisemitic slurs without shame, and quote Hitler and other Nazi leaders daily in a channel open to the public.”

If the bill creating the Virginia Education Success Account Program had been successfully passed, would Virginia parents using this neo-Nazi homeschool network be able to have their expenses covered with public tax dollars? It’s not clear.

A Priority for Republican Governors

“Vouchers don’t provide an actual choice for students living in rural areas who have little, if any, access to private schools,” according to the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), a nationwide advocacy group that champions public schools and explicitly opposes school vouchers.

“If students are able to use a voucher, they are generally required to endure long, costly commutes,” NCPE’s website said. “And, vouchers are especially harmful to the public school systems serving large rural areas because the schools are forced to spread the same costs for facilities, transportation, administration, and instruction over a smaller revenue stream.”

The potential negative impacts that new voucher programs may impose on rural schools have significant consequences for the nation’s public education system at large, NCPE’s website noted, because “[m]ore than one in four schools in America are rural and nearly one in five students attend a rural school, which is approximately 8.9 million students.”

Despite warnings from advocates about the dire consequences new voucher programs would have on rural schools, there is a growing “resurgence” in state legislatures for “school choice action,” Education Week reported, especially for enacting new ESAs.

In a January 2023 Education Week article highlighting new ESAs that are expected to roll out in Iowa and Utah, Douglas Harris, director of the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice at Tulane University, said that the programs are enjoying greater popularity because “[t]he term ‘vouchers’ doesn’t poll very well… So they’re just changing the name to make it sound better.”

School voucher programs have become an especially high policy priority for Republican governors, according to the analysis done by FutureEd and The 74, a media outlet that is generally supportive of school choice. An article based on the analysis noted, “the school choice proposals in 15 State of the State addresses nearly all came from Republican governors. The only Democratic governor to broach the subject, Arizona’s Katie Hobbs, pledged to provide more accountability for a broad expansion of education savings accounts that her predecessor pushed through the legislature.”

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott said in February 2023 that he “will be ‘heavily involved’ in the push for an education savings account program this legislative session,” according to the Texas Tribune. The article noted, “Similar proposals have typically met resistance from a coalition of Democrats and rural GOP lawmakers.” Abbott, however, opted to cherry-pick his constituents’ opinions, saying, “Among Republican rural voters, about 80 percent support this.”

There has been no shortage of controversies surrounding the school choice debate, and the controversies surrounding these proposals are not going away.

One firefight that recently flared came from Utah where a prominent lobbyist, Allison Sorensen, executive director of Kaysville-based Education Opportunity for Every Child, who is helping to lead the effort to enact a new ESA program in that state, “was recorded saying she wants to ‘destroy public education,’” according to KUTV. She later apologized for her remarks, but public education proponents, including education historian Diane Ravitch, called the comment an example of voucher proponents saying “the quiet part out loud.”

‘Communities With No Schools’

School choice proponents have confidence that their calls for ESAs will win over lawmakers, but opposition to these programs is not withering—even among Republicans. In Idaho, a Freedom in Education Savings Accounts bill that was under consideration in the legislature was ultimately defeated in the Senate. “Most Senate Republicans opposed the bill,” the Idaho Statesman reported.

Proponents of public education continue to warn that with more resources going to ESAs and other kinds of voucher programs, there will be fewer dollars to fund community public schools, especially in rural and under-resourced communities that constantly struggle to maintain service.

“If the school choice movement has its way, and the marketplace is the only driver of schooling, there may be communities with no schools because no one is interested in operating a school in that community,” said Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. “Or, it may be that the only school is a religious school, so if you want a secular school for your child, you will be out of luck.”

“Remember, private schools choose students,” Burris added. “Many of these schools do not enroll students who are LGBTQ+ or who have special needs. Parents may find they have no school options at all other than homeschooling or online schools. We can see how this story ends. Unfortunately, too few are paying attention,” she said.

Back in Virginia, Bowman is not alone in her fight for public schools.

“Vouchers take money out of the budget [meant] for public schools and route it to various recipients that include private schools and homeschooling businesses,” the Virginia Public Education Partners, a grassroots group that opposes school privatization, said in a statement sent to Our Schools. “So, public schools have less opportunity to address teacher and bus driver shortages, school maintenance, overcrowding, mental health, and safe buildings.”

“Public schools are meant to create intelligent, responsible, civically engaged citizens,” said Bowman. “They’re often the hearts of our communities, especially in rural areas of the nation. Families, faculty members, and the community regularly come together for school sporting events and school concerts,” she added. “I’d hate to see the positive community spirit surrounding my neighborhood public schools erode under misguided school voucher laws.”

Author Bio: Sandra Jones served as an investigative reporter for nearly two decades. She has received numerous awards for her broadcast reporting.

How the right wing is 'whitewashing' public school history curricula

A fight over new history curriculum standards in Virginia is part of a nationwide campaign to undermine public schools and prevent educators from teaching the truth about America's inequality.

"People still want to hide the truth about Black history," Dione Archer, a resident of Richmond, Virginia, said in an interview with Our Schools. Her response came after being reminded about Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin's November 2022 unveiling of a draft revision of the state's curriculum standards for teaching history in K-12 schools. The revision was roundly criticized for 'whitewashing' American history, as education historian Diane Ravitch put it in her blog, because of its treatment of African American content (all references to Martin Luther King Jr. were deleted), its description of Native American and Indigenous peoples as "the first immigrants" to the country, and other white, Eurocentric guidelines followed by it. "I was very upset," said Archer, whose 15-year-old African American grandson attends Henrico High School in Richmond. "Politicians want to deny the truth, good or bad, about this country," she said. "I didn’t learn about Katherine Johnson [a pioneering African American mathematician who worked for NASA and was a Virginia native] until I was 67 years old. That’s horrifying to me."

This article was produced by Our Schools.

Youngkin's proposed changes to the state's history and social sciences Standards of Learning (SOL) set off an immediate firestorm among public school students, educators, and parents, according to the Washington Informer. In addition to objecting to the emphasis on promoting "white conservative ideology," critics of the proposed new guidelines also opposed them because they would eliminate mention of LGBTQ+ history from K-5 standards and "delay instruction about lynching until the 6th grade and Christopher Columbus' role in the slave trade by the 11th grade. By kindergarten, students would learn to equate citizenship to following rules," the article stated.

State lawmakers and community activists were just as appalled.

"It is important that students and educators learn and teach the truth about the many contributions of African Americans and not attempt to revise history to make others feel good," Virginia House Delegate Reverend Delores McQuinn told Our Schools. McQuinn, who’s a member of the Virginia Black Caucus and co-chair of Virginians for Reconciliation, said she was offended by the governor’s effort, stating that future generations will be the losers if these changes are implemented. "The lack of knowledge about our history is a contributing factor to the racial divisiveness in this country," she said. "We must all begin to think about racial reconciliation and how to get there. The dismissal of our history and culture will not help."

"It's been shown, especially via various in-depth examinations of textbooks used in Virginia, that many Virginia public school students have been miseducated over the years," said Rachel Levy, a teacher, parent, community leader, and 2023 candidate for the newly drawn 59th district seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. "It has created a vicious cycle of ignorance," said Levy, which a previous and highly praised standards revision—conducted by the administration of former Democratic Governor Ralph Northam in 2021—"was trying to begin to break."

The backlash over Youngkin’s proposed curriculum changes persuaded the Virginia State Board of Education "not to move forward" with his proposed draft, WRIC reported in November 2022, and in January 2023, the Youngkin administration issued a revised, shorter draft that they said "fixes errors," WRIC reported, but it still contains language that experts find concerning.

On February 2, 2023, the state Board of Education voted to advance the latest revision, but final adoption isn't expected until June 2023. Educators and public school activists continue to try to thwart Youngkin's whitewashed history curriculum from being taught in Virginia's K-12 schools. Should their efforts ultimately be successful, it may cause a brief setback for a national campaign conducted by shadowy right-wing groups and led by Republican politicians to turn public schools into political battlegrounds and undermine how teachers engage students in thinking critically about important and sometimes controversial topics.

The campaign began as a strategy to falsely target schools for teaching students about critical race theory—a concept taught in higher education that has been turned into a grab bag of complaints about efforts in schools to become more welcoming and provide more inclusive learning environments that embrace teaching diverse points of view about subjects, including the history of race, gender, and religious discrimination in the U.S. Then, the campaign swiftly moved on to efforts to ban books and limit teachers' speech in schools.

Now, this movement is trying to make an end run around the democratic process and alter school curricula that have been formally created by education experts and passed by deliberative bodies and elected officials.

'Imbued With Christian and Conservative Tenets'

"[A]t least 36 states have adopted or introduced laws or policies that restrict teaching about race and racism," according to a February 2022 article in Chalkbeat.

In 2021, Oklahoma lawmakers considered a new bill that "would limit how slavery is taught in schools and ban teaching that 'one race is the unique oppressor' or 'victim' in slavery's history," NBC News reported. In Texas, new laws considered in the state legislature "[tried] to reframe Texas history lessons and play down references to slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination that are part of the state’s founding," stated a New York Times article in May 2021. That article referred to similar efforts underway in "Republican-led states [that] seek to ban or limit how the role of slavery and pervasive effects of racism can be taught."

In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis revamped the state's approach to civics "in a new direction," Education Week reported, "[toward] an overtly patriotic approach that some educators say is imbued with Christian and conservative tenets. And all of that is occurring as Florida's law limiting classroom discussions on race—a key theme in social studies—takes effect" in the 2023-2024 school year.

In some of these efforts, state lawmakers have solicited the influence of right-wing pressure groups that seek to diminish the voices of educators and limit what schools can teach. Among those pressure groups, Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college that led former President Donald Trump's 1776 Commission, is especially influential.

Hillsdale College, according to a three-part investigation by Salon, "has inconspicuously been building a network of 'classical education' charter schools, which use public tax dollars to teach that systemic racism was effectively vanquished in the 1960s, that America was founded on 'Judeo-Christian' principles, and that progressivism is fundamentally anti-American."

In 2022, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, announced a partnership with Hillsdale College to "open upward of 50 new charters with Hillsdale's '1776 Curriculum,'" according to WPLN News.

In Florida, where Hillsdale is rapidly expanding its network of affiliated charter schools, the Michigan-based college was an influential force in revising the state's civics curriculum and rejecting math textbooks that included "what DeSantis called 'indoctrinating concepts,'" the Tampa Bay Times reported.

In Virginia, among the outside institutions Youngkin enlisted to assist in his effort to rewrite the state's history standards was Hillsdale College, VPM News reported. The college was asked by the Virginia Department of Education "to review a working draft of its social studies standards."

A 'Cycle of Miseducation'

By law, the Virginia Board of Education is required to review the standards in all subjects at least once every seven years. The board's last revision for history and social science was in 2015.

A previous version of the history and social science SOL was created during the administration of former Governor Ralph Northam. But the state Board of Education's vote on whether or not to adopt those standards was delayed when Youngkin appointed five new members to the board and tipped the board to a "conservative majority," according to WSET. The Northam draft included lessons on racism and on the LGBTQ+ community.

Defenders of Youngkin's version of the standards are saying that those criticizing it are distorting the revisions' intentions. "Are we mandating that our teachers tell our students that we're a racist country? No. We aren't mandating that," Republican Delegate Glenn Davis, who chairs the House Education Committee, told WTOP. "Davis said that Youngkin's version requires students to learn about the KKK, and Supreme Court cases that enshrined white supremacy, including Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott—which were not required in the Northam version," WTOP reported. "All students will learn about the KKK and the inherent racism during one of the darkest periods of our nation’s history," he told WTOP. "So how is that not ensuring that our students are taught about racism and those time periods of our nation's history?"

But Levy contended, "Replacing the intended, legitimately revised standards with Youngkin's deeply flawed standards will continue that cycle of miseducation."

The revised draft of the SOL introduced in November 2022 also received pushback from the Virginia Education Association. The group’s statement on the standards read, "The standards are full of overt political bias, outdated language to describe enslaved people and American Indians, highly subjective framing of American moralism and conservative ideals, coded racist overtures throughout, requirements for teachers to present histories of discrimination and racism as 'balanced' 'without personal or political bias,' and restrictions on allowance of 'teacher-created curriculum,' which is allowed in all other subject areas."

'Turning Back the Clock'

But, as an article in USA Today reported, the debate over Virginia's history standards is even more relevant, as it comes at a time when the nation's system of public education has become increasingly more racially segregated. "Education policy experts warn that efforts to keep certain books out of the classroom or ban the teaching of sensitive topics such as race and gender risk turning back the clock to a time when segregated schools meant separate—and vastly unequal—forums for learning," the article noted.

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case that made racial segregation in schools unconstitutional and "marked a major turning point in America's attitudes about racial equality," USA Today noted that "experts [now] see the dawning of a new era of school segregation—one in which certain topics will be verboten in some districts and how and what students learn will be determined by what their schools are allowed to teach."

The USA Today article quoted Sarah Hill, a political science professor and education policy expert at California State University in Fullerton, who warned that states and school boards that refuse to teach certain kinds of topics and books they deem to be divisive will effectively segregate school experiences.

"Students will have very different educational experiences, different kinds of conversations in the classroom," Hill said. "As a result, many American children may wind up at the end of high school without a complete picture of the country's history. Many will lack, under the guise of keeping them from feeling discomfort in school, exposure to aspects of the American story that undeniably define the country. They may be denied a chance to reconcile modern events and the past and be denied the opportunity to build empathy and compassion for people they are sure to face for the rest of their lives," the USA Today article stated.

Levy's take was somewhat similar. "I don't necessarily see a direct link between school segregation and Youngkin's new history and social science standards," she said, "but I could foresee if Virginia students don't learn an accurate and full version of our shared history—they wouldn't learn, for example, about the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and segregation—that they wouldn't understand where racial and other disparities in access to power and resources come from in our society and institutions, or why and how they should be remedied."

Author Bio: Sandra Jones served as an investigative reporter for nearly two decades. She has received numerous awards for her broadcast reporting.

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