December 2, 2023

Jay Bookman: Expect Georgia lawmakers to push school vouchers again with fake sympathy for the poor

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Award-winning journalist offers some comments about the future of voucher proposals in Georgia. Originally published in Georgia Recorder. 

Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.

Give them a voucher system, they’ll take your public school system.

For several decades now, conservatives have been pushing vouchers by arguing it would help poor students “escape” public schools into supposedly better private schools. Opponents have countered by accusing voucher proponents of using poor students as a cynical ploy, an excuse to disguise their long-term goal of tapping taxpayer dollars to finance their own exclusive system of education.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time that fake sympathy for poor people was leveraged to enrich the prosperous. Nor the last.

The argument, however, has now been settled, because in states such as Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma and Louisiana, conservatives have given the game away. In each of those states, what began as somewhat limited voucher programs, somewhat targeted to poorer students, have blown up into expensive, taxpayer-funded entitlement programs for upper-middle class families, in the process draining hundreds of millions of dollars from public education.

Let’s take our neighbor Florida as an example. Until two years ago, Florida’s voucher program was available only to households making less than 260% of the federal poverty level, or $68,900 for a family of four. In 2021, in a ceremony at a Catholic parochial school, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill raising that income limit to 350% of the poverty level, or $99,360.

A program supposedly designed to help the poor had become a handout to the private-school middle class, but that too proved just a temporary step. In March of 2023, DeSantis stopped campaigning for president long enough to sign a bill eliminating all ceilings on income level, just as voucher opponents had long predicted.

The impact has been immediate. The number of Florida students receiving vouchers has doubled in the current school year, and the overwhelming majority of those new recipients – 69% — are students who were already in private schools and able to pay private-school tuition. According to the state’s own numbers, 44% of new voucher recipients in the expanded program either come from households making four times the poverty level (more than $120,000 for a household of four) or did not submit income information.

The new law also expands the list of authorized uses for home-schooling vouchers. In Florida, you can now use your $8,600 taxpayer voucher to buy a 55-inch TV for your kid. You can use it to buy swing sets or foosball tables, Legos or stuffed animals, or to pay for personalized, one-on-one coaching in sports such as golf or baseball.

You can even use your voucher to pay for trips to Florida theme parks, courtesy of Florida taxpayers. Disney World here we come! It’s an extraordinary, largely unmonitored use of public money, especially in a state that is otherwise so stingy with education dollars that it spends less per pupil than much poorer states such as Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi or Arkansas.

The story is similar in Arizona, where Republican legislators just removed all income limitations on its voucher program. They did so despite the fact that in 2018, Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar expanded voucher program by a margin of 65-35%. The voters had spoken, but legislators did not care.

According to Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat and a critic of the program, spending on vouchers this year “could account for 53.25% of all new K-12 education spending in the FY 2024 budget, going toward only 8% of Arizona students” and could bankrupt the state.

And as in Florida, Arizona parents are using the vouchers not just to pay for things such as piano lessons, but to buy actual pianos, in one case spending almost $4,000 in taxpayers’ money. When state officials were questioned about that expense, they responded that it was “absolutely allowable.”

It’s important to keep such incremental steps in mind during Georgia’s upcoming legislative session, when Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to push for passage of a major voucher bill, one that would represent Georgia’s next step toward a system similar to that in Florida and other states. SB 233 offers a voucher of roughly $6.000 and sets no household income limit on voucher recipients, although it does limit those eligible to students in the lowest-performing quarter of Georgia public schools.

However, as we’ve seen so clearly in other states, passage of SB 233 would not end the push for universal vouchers for all, but instead accelerate it. If SB 233 passes, voucher advocates will be back next year and the year after that as well, always pushing to expand the program well beyond its supposed purpose of “helping poor kids escape bad schools.”

The tragedy is that independent research into long-running voucher programs in Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana and Washington, DC has found that students who use vouchers to leave public schools do significantly worse on standardized testing than their counterparts who remain in public education, in part perhaps because of the low quality of private schools that poor families could afford on that voucher.

Here in Georgia, for example, $6,000 wouldn’t make it possible for low-income parents to buy a quality private education for their kids. But for those families with resources, it’s a sweet little taxpayer-funded entitlement, and who cares what it might do to public education funding.

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