Jeff Bryant: How Right-Wing Brainchild ‘Universal School Vouchers’ Blow Through State Budgets
Jeff Bryant is the chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. His newest piece takes a deep dive into how voucher programs rapidly expand to budget-busting size.
When voucher programs were initially enacted in early adopting states, such as Florida and Arizona, eligibility was limited to low-income families or to children with special needs or circumstances. But the trend over the last few years has been to make these programs open to all or nearly all families. What Abbott is proposing, in fact, would allow all families to apply for vouchers.
Nine states have enacted universal school vouchers as of November 2023, including Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and West Virginia, according to State Policy Network, a school choice advocacy group. Indiana’s voucher program is “near universal,” as 97 percent of families are eligible under the scheme.
Republicans who oppose universal school vouchers, in Texas and elsewhere, have expressed concerns about diverting tax dollars from public schools, especially in rural communities, to private education providers that have little or no accountability for how they spend the money. They’ve also questioned the constitutionality of giving parents public funds to spend on private religious schools.
But Republican state lawmakers who claim to be strict watchdogs on government purse strings should also be concerned about another consequence of enacting these programs—their potential to quickly run through estimated costs and produce sizable deficits.
According to multiple reports detailed below, states that have been among the earliest to adopt universal voucher programs are finding that their costs are far exceeding estimates primarily due to the high numbers of families taking advantage of the programs. These families mostly never had their children enrolled in public schools.
In state after state, the number of families using vouchers to “escape” so-called failed public schools—an original argument for vouchers—is dwarfed by a larger population of families who already had their children enrolled in private schools and are using voucher money to subsidize their private school tuition costs.
Another large percentage of voucher users are parents who homeschool their children and use voucher funds to cover expenses they would previously have been shouldering themselves. Vouchers also appear to be incentivizing parents with rising kindergartners to choose private schools instead of their local public schools.
Other reports have raised concerns about the financial wisdom of giving parents free sway over how they use voucher money, citing evidence that parents have used the funding to make extravagant purchases or buy products and services that have dubious educational value.
In the meantime, policy leaders and experts alike warn that universal voucher programs are sending states, which are constitutionally obligated to balance their budgets, into uncharted financial waters.