Advocates of expanding private school choice for families—via offerings like vouchers and education savings accounts—often argue that devoting state dollars to these programs is necessary to provide families with affordable alternatives to public schools where their children are struggling.
“Families find themselves trapped in failing schools simply because they live in the wrong ZIP code,” Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican, said in February while proposing her state’s new universal education savings account, or ESA, program. One Florida state lawmaker, endorsing his state’s universal ESA program, said in March that families need more alternatives to public schools because “we don’t want your child to go to a school where their values are mocked.”
But data from a handful of states that have recently expanded their school choice offerings highlight a different trend: A majority of students participating in these programs were already enrolled in private schools or were homeschool students prior to signing up for the newly expanded, publicly funded education subsidy.
Parents can use state-funded vouchers to pay for tuition at the private school of their choice. Education savings accounts are similar, but the range of allowable expenses for the state-provided amount families receive is much wider and includes the cost of school supplies, instructional materials, and transportation.
Data on who’s enrolling in these programs can be difficult to track down. But reports from several states do show that the majority of applicants are students who previously weren’t in public schools.
In Iowa, 40 percent of more than 17,000 applicants to the state’s new universal education savings account program have left public schools, while the remaining 60 percent were not enrolled in public schools before applying for an ESA, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, announced in August.
The gap is even wider in Florida, where 69 percent of roughly 122,000 new applicants to the state’s newly expanded, universal education savings account programs were already in private schools prior to applying, including some students who were taking advantage of a different, narrower state-supported school choice program. Another 18 percent are children entering the K-12 system for the first time as kindergarteners, according to Step Up for Students, the nonprofit in charge of administering the program. That means the remainder of students new to the voucher program, 13 percent, are leaving public schools.
The Arizona Department of Education reported two weeks after its universal education savings account program opened last year that 75 percent of new applicants were not previously public school students; a few months later, that percentage slipped to 51 percent. Similar findings have surfaced for voucher and ESA programs in Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin.
There are caveats to these findings. Many don’t reflect the most up-to-date assessment of where enrolled students are coming from. Questions remain about what is motivating public and private school students alike to apply for vouchers and education savings accounts, and whether all the students and families who might want to take advantage know about the opportunity.
But the trend signals that, at least so far, demand for state funds for the purpose of fleeing public schools hasn’t been overwhelming.
‘We just want more options out there’
For private school choice proponents like Marty Lueken, director of fiscal policy and analysis at EdChoice, these numbers aren’t cause for concern.
By design, state-funded private school choice offerings that are open to all K-12 students in the state will see a lower percentage of “switchers” than more narrowly targeted programs that restrict current private school students from applying.
Plus, Lueken said, the goal of vouchers and ESAs isn’t solely to facilitate departures from public schools. They aim to ensure that all families can comfortably provide children with the type of education they choose.
Even though a family might have previously enrolled their child in private school without financial support from a voucher or education savings account, they could still benefit significantly from not having to pay tuition or fees once the voucher or ESA becomes available, Lueken said.
“We just want more options out there so that disadvantaged students will have a much better chance to find something,” Lueken said. “If that also benefits families that are not as disadvantaged, then that’s great.” The availability of details on participants’ family income and other demographics varies widely from state to state.
Concerns remain about transparency and future budget challenges
Private school choice has gained considerable political momentum this year, with North Carolina most recently passing a universal education savings account program that mirrors recently passed equivalents in Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, and Utah.
Still, the programs haven’t rolled out in an entirely smooth fashion. Courts in Arkansas spent months untangling complexities that made the state’s major new education law difficult to implement. And concerns about budget overruns have arisen in Arizona, Iowa, and Ohio.
Critics and observers of the private school choice movement worry about the implications of state-funded programs that primarily serve students who were already attending private school.
For one, states are committing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for families to invest in education options that aren’t held to the same standards of academic accountability and anti-discrimination requirements that public schools must follow by law. Recent reporting from the news publication Wisconsin Watch, for instance, revealed that dozens of private schools in the state that are eligible to accept vouchers have policies that appear to permit discrimination against students with disabilities and LGBTQ students.
The relatively low enrollment of former public school students in private school choice programs also tends to lead legislative analysts to underestimate the costs of these programs, said Josh Cowen, a professor of education policy at the Michigan State University College of Education and a vocal critic of private school choice initiatives.
In fiscal notes estimating the financial impact of proposed legislation, Cowen said, state lawmakers often assume that the costs of paying for private school tuition will be offset by the reduction in per-pupil costs caused by a drop in public K-12 enrollment. However, if the state is instead taking on new students for whom it’s financially responsible—students who were previously attending private school without state assistance—that’s a new cost that could strain budgets, he said.
That’s one reason Cowen believes states should be legally required to regularly report clearly accessible data on the breakdown of enrollment in school choice programs.
Some states, like Arkansas, have said they don’t track the origins of students enrolling for the first time in voucher or ESA programs.
Arizona, meanwhile, posts quarterly reports that include an itemized list of every individual school district and private school where students applying for an education savings account were previously enrolled.
Cowen believes arguments for private school choice programs could shift as data come to light showing the relatively low numbers of public school students taking advantage of them.
Proponents and critics of private school choice do agree on one thing, though—there’s still a lot we don’t know.
“These programs are very new, so it’s too early to get a more definitive sense of how these programs are going to evolve,” Lueken said.