The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic provided state lawmakers with a new talking point this year as they pushed public programs to send students to private schools.
In statehouses around the country, advocates for private school choice pointed to frustrations with school closures and remote-learning struggles as they touted vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts.
And they saw a wave of success: Six states had enacted new programs by July 1, and a bill to create a new program in Missouri awaited Gov. Mike Parson’s signature. Governors also approved expansions of 14 existing voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs by loosening eligibility restrictions or expanding their budgets.
“Closures and difficulties with online learning have left children in educational peril,” said Wisconsin state Rep. Barbara Dittrich, a Republican, as she pitched an expansion of the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program that was later vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat.
“Allowing more families to choose which school is best for their child” would help to “accelerate educational recovery,” she said.
National groups that promote private school choice pointed to parents’ frustration with districts’ shifting plans for in-person and hybrid learning throughout the 2020-21 school year alongside longstanding arguments about giving families alternatives.
But groups that oppose voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs said linking the bills to the pandemic was a cynical ploy. Districts’ struggles to respond to the pandemic were exacerbated by years of underfunding, said Jessica Levin, director of Public Funds Public Schools, a campaign organized to oppose vouchers and similar programs. District leaders have pointed to inadequate staffing, outdated buildings, and poor ventilation systems as hurdles to in-person learning.
“This really emphasized the need to stop any program that diverts those limited resources away from public schools and to stop focusing on this red herring of funding private schools that aren’t going to welcome all students or serve them well,” she said.
Educational administrators in affected states expressed concern that the programs would destabilize school systems in recovery. Private schools aren’t held to the same performance or reporting standards, they said, and some may set stricter admissions requirements, leaving students like those who are gay or transgender with fewer options. And, while some private school choice programs are targeted toward students with disabilities, some expressed concern that private schools have less oversight to ensure they meet those students’ needs.
New programs support private school attendance
Vouchers provide families with state scholarships to send their children to private schools. Through tax-credit scholarships, states provide private donors credits, typically dollar-for-dollar, in exchange for contributions to private scholarship funds. Education savings accounts allow families to spend those funds more broadly, paying for things like tutoring services and home school materials in addition to private school tuition.
Among the biggest moves in states’ 2021 legislative sessions: West Virginia created the most-expansive education savings account program in the country, making most of the state’s students eligible for the Hope Scholarship Program, which will provide up to $4,600 in state funds per student. New Hampshire’s budget includes a new educational savings account program available to families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line.
The number of education savings accounts programs doubled to 10 as a result of this year’s sessions, said Jason Bedrick the director of policy at Ed Choice, an organization that advocates for such programs.
“There are quite a few states that went pretty big this year,” Bedrick said.
While states have typically targeted vouchers and other private school scholarships at smaller populations, like students with disabilities and students from low-income households, more states adopted broad programs in 2021 or expanded eligibility for those already in place.
Indiana expanded eligibility to include families with incomes up to three times the limit for students eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches at school. Some states, like Florida and South Dakota, removed requirements that students had to previously attend a public school to qualify for a voucher or scholarship. Arkansas created a new program and expanded an existing one, adding children from military families to eligible recipients alongside students with disabilities and children in foster care.
While many state lawmakers supporting those efforts cited the pandemic, others drew on established rhetoric from the school choice movement.
“This is about allowing parents to make decisions for their children,” Arkansas State Sen. Jonathan Dismang, a Republican, said in an April committee hearing. “Poor children are not the property of our public schools.”
Pandemic disruption becomes a school choice talking point
The effort to link COVID-19 frustrations with demand for state choice programs started early in the pandemic, when former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos pushed to allow federal relief funds to “follow the student,” allowing them to attend private schools if their public school did not fully reopen.
“I think the last six months have really revealed the fact that the system that most students have been a part of has been a very static, one-size-fits-all system that is unable in way too many cases to pivot, to be nimble and flexible and to adjust to new and different circumstances,” DeVos said on a Sirius XM radio show in August.
Levin, of Public Funds Public Schools, called the connection a “false narrative” that didn’t address longstanding concerns about school resources.
“It’s an extension of older patterns of systemically underfunding public education and then creating a false message about failing and underperforming public schools and using that as a justification to send public funds to private schools,” she said.
That message may have been blunted after the U.S. Congress approved nearly $130 billion in K-12 aid through the American Rescue Plan, giving schools a one-time infusion of cash to offset the effects of the pandemic.
Supporters of charter schools, which have faced heightened criticism from Democrats during the 2020 presidential campaign, said that new funding helped efforts to avoid some proposed state-level restrictions on the publicly funded, independently managed schools.
“The tired argument about districts losing money to charter schools doesn’t have the same ring when districts have more money than they know what to do with,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Bedrick, of Ed Choice, said it’s “impossible to disaggregate” exactly how much of a role the response to COVID-19 played in states’ actions. But Ed Choice’s monthly polls showed increasing levels of parent support for school choice programs throughout the pandemic.
And data contradict the narrative that all parents wanted a return to in-person learning. In some districts, parents of color were more likely to keep their children home for remote-learning, even after their schools gave them the option to return to the classroom.
A June poll of 1,000 parents by the National Parents Union found that about a third of respondents didn’t want their children to return to school until they are fully vaccinated. While some private schools promoted themselves as in-person alternatives at the beginning of the pandemic, others are touting their remote options for those families as public schools reopen.
Levin said the effect of the pandemic on the surge of legislation could be overstated. Some program expansions were the result of compromises attached to unrelated legislation or tucked into state budgets, she said.
In addition, state lawmakers held many meetings online, and state capitols limited public access to reduce the risk of virus transmission. That took a powerful tool away from teachers and parents who’ve flooded statehouses to push for more public school funding and to oppose some choice measures in recent years, Levin said.
Programs face legal challenges
Attorneys general in some states prepared for legal challenges to new programs before they even took effect.
Those legal concerns come as the U.S. Supreme Court has reduced states’ ability to restrict religious schools from private choice programs. The high court agreed Friday to hear a challenge to such limits included in a small Maine program.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that created $25 million in dollar-for-dollar tax credits for contributions to “education opportunity accounts,” but state lawmakers overrode that veto.
The program now faces a lawsuit filed by the Council for Better Education, a group whose 1989 landmark legal victory led to an overhaul of the state’s education funding system. Its complaint, filed alongside a group of parents, says the tax credits violate Kentucky’s constitution, calling them “the functional equivalent of direct outlays by the commonwealth.”
“Each student the general assembly urges to leave the public school system will leave behind a system with fewer resources to educate the remaining students,” the complaint says. It notes some “fixed costs,” like facilities maintenance and utilities costs, will remain the same, even as enrollment drops.
The Institute for Justice, a legal group that argues in favor of private school choice, has filed a motion to intervene on behalf of two Kentucky families who support the program.
One of those parents, school choice activist Akia McNeary, said she wants to use a new scholarship to send her daughter to kindergarten at a private school in the fall. Two of her older children have attended private schools to cope with bullying and special learning needs, she said. One has thrived at a public high school.
McNeary said she would rather home-school her daughter than send her to a newly opened public elementary school she is zoned to attend. The family’s finances are too tight to send her to the private Christian school her older brother attends without support from the state scholarship program, she said.
Despite the national rhetoric, McNeary doesn’t mention the pandemic or remote learning when she discusses her plans. Rather, she cites her distrust with public schools that is rooted in her own experience as a student who started college with inadequate reading skills.
“I am very intentional when it comes to my kids,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as How the Pandemic Helped Fuel the Private School Choice Movement