Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider: In Red States, the Bill for School Voucher Bait-and-Switch Is Coming Due
For The Nation, Berkshire and Schneider, co-hosts of the popular education podcast Have You Heard look at just how expensive choice is becoming.
Bait-and-switch is an old retail tactic. You lure customers in with promises of a deep discount, only to inform them that the deal has a catch. The real price tag, it turns out, is quite a bit more.
Though it took supporters of school vouchers a while to catch on, they’ve learned quickly that the trick works just as well in education policy as it does in retail sales. Pick a price that will get people in the door, and then break the news once you’ve got them where you want them.
In Arizona, taxpayers are now staring down a $400 million shortfall, with an even bigger bill coming due next year. How did the Grand Canyon State go from sitting on a huge cash reserve to facing a rising tide of red ink? Simple. Voucher proponents suggested that paying for private school tuition would cost taxpayers $65 million a year; but as it stands, the program is on track to cost roughly 15 times that. All told, Arizona taxpayers are likely to spend close to a billion dollars reimbursing the cost of tuition and luxury expenses—including ski resort passes, pianos, and theme park tickets—for families whose children were never enrolled in the public schools.
It isn’t just Arizona’s problem. Over the past two years, multiple states have enacted universal or near-universal voucher programs that far exceed initial cost projections. In Iowa, for instance, Governor Kim Reynolds pushed an expansive voucher program that gives roughly $7,500 to any Iowa family for private school tuition. But demand for the program among parents who already send their kids to private schools, most of which are religious, has far exceeded expectations. Now Iowans are on the hook for the tuition of 17,000 private school students—a bill that will total $345 million a year next year. The same story has unfolded in Ohio, Arkansas, West Virginia, and elsewhere.
It wasn’t just the price tag that voucher proponents were deceptive about—it was also the projected beneficiaries of such programs.