School Choice & Charters

Why Trump’s Plan for a Massive School Voucher Program Might Not Work

By Lesli A. Maxwell & Arianna Prothero — November 28, 2016 7 min read
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Many school choice advocates are ecstatic that President-elect Donald Trump has tapped billionaire Betsy DeVos to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education—their visions for expanding voucher programs and charter schools on a grander scale seeming more likely than ever.

On the flip side, opponents of charters and other taxpayer-supported forms of school choice are predicting the destruction of traditional public schools under DeVos’ leadership.

Here’s a reality check for both sides.

Most of the nation’s 50 million K-12 schoolchildren will stay where they already are—in neighborhood public schools.

There’s every reason to believe that DeVos—who has a robust track record when it comes to supporting (with her own money) an array of school choice issues, especially in her home state of Michigan—will embrace and push for Trump’s campaign proposal to spend $20 billion in federal money on school vouchers for poor kids. That plan calls for allowing low-income families to choose a school for their children, be it private, magnet, charter, or traditional public.

Even though vouchers have much slimmer political support than charter schools, there are members of Congress who’ve attempted this before, and are ready to go to battle again, perhaps none more so than Republican Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana, who last year made a push to make federal Title I funds “portable” for poor students to use at both public and private schools. As Messer told our colleague Andrew Ujifusa right after Trump’s election:

“There are billions and billions of dollars spent by the federal government on education. We can certainly find the money to spend on that program,” Messer said, adding then when it comes to how such a program could work, “There are many options. I don’t think anyone has decided if Title I is the best option.”

But even if Trump is able to make good on his campaign promise to create federal school vouchers for low-income students, the vast majority of the nation’s 50 million public school students will remain in district-run, neighborhood schools. The full contours of Trump’s proposal are still largely unknown, but presumably not all of the $20 billion would be, or could be, set aside for private-school vouchers. A large share of eligible families would likely choose to send their kids to other traditional public schools, or charters, which are public.

A $20 billion voucher program would present major logistical challenges.

Even if the political challenges to such a program could be overcome—and that’s a huge question—the practical and logistical challenges to accommodating such a mass expansion of school choice for voucher students are enormous.

Right now, there are 2.7 million students in charters, less than six percent of the overall K-12 enrollment. The private-school-choice sector is even smaller at fewer than 400,000 students. (see our graphic below, which reflects data from 2015). Just 15 states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs, and in many of those, Roman Catholic schools make up the bulk of private schools that participate. Catholic schools offer tuition rates to make vouchers, which typically range in value from $4,000 to $7,000, the most viable option for poor families. But that particular sector has shrunk dramatically over the decades, dropping to 1.9 million students in the 2014-15 school year from its peak of 5.2 million in the 1960s, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

Elsewhere in the private school sector, about 730,000 students were enrolled in private, independent schools that were members of the National Association of Independent Schools in the 2015-16 school year, according to the membership organization. Enrollment in private schools that are not members of NAIS stood at nearly 122,000 students in the same year, according to the data on the association’s website. The organization reported that the median tuition at its members’ day schools was just under $20,000 for students in 6th grade.

Given such obstacles, even the most stalwart supporters of school choice seem to think Trump’s vision for vouchers is not a foregone conclusion, but an unprecedented opportunity to put the issue at the center of conversations about improving education. As Robert Enlow, the president and chief executive officer of EdChoice, a major school choice advocacy group, told Arianna Prothero recently:

“One of the reasons I’m excited about the next four years, in terms of school choice, there is going to be a chance to advocate and educate about this issue,” said Enlow.

There are many flavors of school choice—vouchers, education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, and charters, to name a few.

Voucher is the word on everyone’s mind at the moment and it’s a politically loaded term. To many the other types of choice they hear about—education savings accounts and tax-credit scholarships—are just variations. But the differences between private school choice programs such as traditional vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts are still very important, and can even explain why one kind is legal in a given state, but another isn’t. So, what are the differences?

School Vouchers: This type of program allows parents to use public funding allocated for their child toward tuition at a private school of their choice, including religiously affiliated private schools. Most voucher programs typically start out targeted toward certain groups of students such as those with disabilities, those zoned to a failing school, or those from low-income families. Some states, such as Indiana, have expanded their programs to include more middle-income families. (Vice President-elect, Mike Pence, is the former Governor of Indiana and oversaw significant expansion of the voucher program during his time in office.)

Tax-credit scholarships: Through this type of program, the state uses tax-credits to incentivize businesses or individuals to donate money to a scholarship granting organization, which then gives money to students to use toward tuition at a private school. To qualify, students usually have to be from a low-income family, a failing school, or have other special needs. Some states offer another variation, such as individual tax-credits or deductions. Florida pioneered this version of choice.

Education savings accounts: In an ESA program, the state sets aside money usually based on its per-pupil funding formulas in individual accounts for participating students. Their parents or guardians can then withdraw that money to spend on approved educational expenses. That may be private school tuition, but it may also be used for tutoring, online courses, transportation, or even some types of therapy. In addition to helping families send their children to private school, an ESA program can also allow them to home school or cobble together a hybrid public-private education. ESAs were initially aimed at students with disabilities, but Arizona, where the idea originated, has been steadily expanding eligibility to its program to include other groups of students, such as those from failing schools, military families, and students who live on American Indian reservations. Nevada blew the lid off that last year when it passed a universal ESA program open to all students in public schools.

Why the Differences?

To answer that question, we have to go back to 2002 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a small voucher program in Cleveland did not violate the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution. The Justices ruled the voucher program was constitutional because it served a valid secular purpose and it was neutral to religion—in other words, parents pick what schools the money goes to, not the state government.

However, many state constitutions have specific amendments expressly prohibiting taxpayer money from going to religious organizations. These are generally called Blaine Amendments. (For a short history on Blaine amendments, here’s an informative Q&A with a George Washington University law scholar).

So, if a state’s constitution has a Blaine Amendment, tax-credit scholarships and ESAs can offer workarounds. A story Education Week‘s Arianna Prothero wrote on education savings accounts offers a good example:

Created in 2011, Arizona's ESA program was, in many ways, the outcome of a protracted legal battle over the state's original voucher program, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court in 2009 because it provided public dollars directly to private schools, and to private schools only. In that decision, the court left open the possibility that a voucher-like program could be structured to remove that conflict. 'They left us a trail of breadcrumbs to follow,' said Matthew Ladner, who worked at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, a conservative public policy and advocacy organization whose legal arm also helped defend the ESA program. 'I took the hint from that, and we published a new paper at the Goldwater Institute basically calling for an account-based choice program for special needs kids that would have multiple uses including private schools,' he said."

But that doesn’t mean those programs can’t be challenged. State teachers’ unions have led the legal charge against tax-credit and ESA programs in several states. They generally argue that no matter how circuitous the route, state governments are still directing money toward private and sometimes religious institutions and away from public schools. Here are some examples of recent lawsuits:

Nevada’s education savings account program is currently suspended after the state’s Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutionally funded.

A lawsuit challenging Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program has been winding through the state’s courts for a while now.

Related stories:

For a deep-dive on ESAs and the first two states, Arizona and Florida, to implement them, click here.
And finally, here’s an in-depth look at the country’s most expansive voucher program, Indiana’s.

Holly Peele, Library Director contributed to this article.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.