Josh Cowen: The Year in Review: Dark Money Vouchers Are Having a Moment
Josh Cowen is a researcher with decades of expertise in studying vouchers. In this piece for the Washington Spectator, he looks at some voucher developments from the last year, including a spate of bad policy initiatives to install more and bigger vouchers.
First, why are these new voucher schemes such bad public policy? To understand the answer, it’s important to know that the typical voucher-accepting school is a far cry from the kind of elite private academy you might find in a coastal city or wealthy suburban outpost. Instead, they’re usually sub-prime providers, akin to predatory lenders in the mortgage sector. These schools are either pop-ups opening to cash in on the new taxpayer subsidy, or financially distressed existing schools desperate for a bailout to stay open. Both types of financially insecure schools often close anyway, creating turnover for children who were once enrolled.
And the voucher results reflect that educational vulnerability: in terms of academic impacts, vouchers have some of the worst results in the history of education research—on par or worse than what COVID-19 did to test scores.
Those results are bad enough, but the real issue today is that they come at a cost of funding traditional public schools. As voucher systems expand, they cannibalize states’ ability to pay for their public education commitments. Arizona, which passed universal vouchers in 2022, is nearing a genuine budget crisis as a result of voucher over-spending. Six of the last seven states to pass vouchers have had to slow spending on public schools relative to investments made by non-voucher states.
That’s because most new voucher users were never in the public schools—they are new financial obligations for states. The vast majority of new voucher beneficiaries have been students who were already in private school beforehand. And for many rural students who live far from the nearest private school, vouchers are unrealistic in the first place, meaning that when states cut spending on public education, they weaken the only educational lifeline available to poorer and more remote communities in some places. That’s why even many GOP legislators representing rural districts—conservative in every other way—continue to fight against vouchers.
Vouchers do, however, benefit churches and church schools. Right-wing advocacy groups have been busy mobilizing Catholic school and other religious school parents to save their schools with new voucher funding. In new voucher states, conservatives are openly advocating for churches to startup taxpayer-funded schools. That’s why vouchers eventually become a key source of revenue for those churches, often replacing the need to rely on private donations. It’s also why many existing religious schools raise tuition almost immediately after vouchers pass.