May 23, 2023

Tim Walker: ‘Lose Your School, You Lose Your Town’: Educators in Rural States Mobilize Against School Vouchers

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Vouchers pose a particular threat to rural and small town public schools. Writing for NEA Today, Tim Walker looks at the threat, and how some communities are pushing back.

Public schools everywhere have an important and unique place in their communities, but for rural areas, that role is even more consequential. Schools are more than academic institutions; they provide critical services to students who need them the most. Rural schools are also hubs for community engagement through concerts, theatrical productions, and sports. Often, they are a town’s largest employer.

“At our school, we offer a lot, because our community expects a lot,” says Steve Peterson, a teacher in Decorah, a town in northeastern Iowa. “They want good programs—academic, but also extra-curricular opportunities.”

Peterson, his colleagues, and many parents, however, are looking ahead to the next school year and beyond with unease and trepidation.

In January, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law one of the broadest school voucher programs in the nation. Beginning in 2023-24, the state will begin shifting hundreds of millions of dollars in education funding to religious and private schools. Voucher legislation has been passed or is being considered in more than a dozen states this year.

The strength and standing of rural schools will be tested. How will they prevent a drop in enrollments? How can they continue to provide the breadth of services to every student? How will an exodus of educators be stemmed?

“The impact is not clear yet, but I fear the short answer,” says Peterson, “is you don’t.”

In previous years, educators and their unions in Iowa helped defeat voucher proposals, thanks in part to steadfast opposition from enough rural lawmakers who understood the devastating impact these schemes would have on area public schools.

Vouchers cost their communities a great deal.

Even before the recent surge of voucher legislation, the amount of public taxpayer dollars being redirected to private school tuition has been running at alarming levels.

Abrams and Steven Koutzvalis, a classroom teacher and education policy researcher, analyzed voucher programs’ fiscal impact in a 2023 report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Education Law Center.  

In each of the seven states highlighted in the report— Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin—expenditures of public funds on voucher programs increased dramatically from 2008 to 2019. Furthermore, the portion of state gross domestic product allocated to K-12 public education decreased, even though public school enrollment grew over the same period.

The report’s findings, said Jessica Levin, deputy litigation director at Education Law Center, “throws into stark relief a fact that education privatizers want to hide: the fiscal consequences of private school voucher programs are substantial.”

There’s more to read. Check out the full article here

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