The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More states are paying to send children to private and religious schools

The school-choice movement, riding a wave of parental rights campaigns, is resurgent

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) proposed Wednesday to let any student use state money for private or religious school tuition. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)
10 min

For years, school-choice advocates toted up small victories in their drive to give parents taxpayer money to pay for private school. Now, Republican-led states across the country are leaving the limitations of the past behind them as they consider sweeping new voucher laws that would let every family use public funds to pay for private school.

Last year, Arizona created what activists consider a model program: Every child who forgoes public school for private programs, including religious schools, is eligible for a taxpayer-funded payment worth $7,000 — almost as much as the state sends to public schools per student.

In January, Iowa and Utah followed suit, creating their own universal programs. GOP governors in Arkansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Oklahoma have listed these programs among their top priorities for 2023. In other states, Republican lawmakers are pushing the same.

“Families find themselves trapped in failing schools simply because they live in the wrong Zip code,” Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) said Wednesday at the state Capitol, where she unveiled her plan, which she previewed in a nationally televised address responding to the State of the Union speech on behalf of Republicans. “Our new Education Freedom Account allows parents to enroll their kids in whatever school is most appropriate for their family, whether it be public, private, parochial or home school.”

Many voucher and voucherlike programs enacted in recent years were more modest: Called “scholarships,” they created tax incentives for donations to nonprofits that would subsidize certain families who wanted to send their children to private school. Eligibility was limited — typically by income, to those in a particular area or to children with special needs.

The new, more expansive version does away with this shuffling of dollars. Now the plans are run by the state, with direct appropriations. They are open to anyone, and the money can pay for tuition or other expenses, a huge benefit to home-schooling families. Calling these programs “scholarships” and now “education savings accounts,” or ESAs, also allows advocates to avoid the word “vouchers,” a term that grew politically unpopular in some quarters.

The new measures upend the traditional notion that schools accepting tax money should be subject to the same government rules that public schools face, such as student testing and accountability measures. They also continue to break down barriers between church and state.

At one time, courts barred the use of taxpayer money for religious schools, but the Supreme Court has shifted course over decisions, including one last summer that said Maine had to include religious schools in a small private school voucher program. The ruling seemed to open the door to voucher programs that include parochial education.

Opponents see nothing less than an attack on the very institution of public education.

“Any time there is a scheme like vouchers — or call them what you will — we know that drains resources from public schools, and 90 percent of our students are in public schools,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest union, which vigorously opposes the programs. She added that private schools can pick and choose their students, while public schools must educate all. “We’ve seen them deliberately exclude families from their schools. Yet that money is being sent to those schools.”

The resurgent school-choice momentum stems in part from the coronavirus pandemic and parent frustration over school closures, mask mandates and quarantines. At the same time, school-choice backers have worked to convert parents who waged culture-war battles over pandemic policies and the teaching of race and gender, hoping they see vouchers as an alternative to schools they view as overly liberal.

Public education is facing a crisis of epic proportions

In Wisconsin, for instance, members of conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty have been talking to parental rights groups about pending legislation that would expand the state’s school-choice programs, said Will Flanders, a research director at the institute. The institute began giving Zoom presentations at the height of the pandemic in 2020. In the past year, it held more than 20 events, with topics including the benefits of “taking your kids out of the traditional public school system.”

Similarly, in Florida, Rick Stevens, a pastor and co-founder of the educational advocacy group Florida Citizens Alliance, is working to persuade thousands of people who joined his group over concerns about curriculums to now work on behalf of school choice. He is lobbying for a Florida bill that would establish ESAs for every child in the state, which would give families money to spend on private school tuition or other educational expenses. Members of the group began visiting legislators to lobby for the bill before it was even filed, he said.

And in Virginia, recruits to the cause include Elicia Brand, a 53-year-old mother of three. She had been mostly satisfied with her public schools in suburban Loudoun County until the pandemic hit. First, she grew unhappy with Loudoun’s online offerings. Later, she became upset over what she called Loudoun’s undue focus on equity, including how the district teaches about race.

About a year ago, she founded an education advocacy group called Army of Parents to fight for “freedom, liberty, safety and parental rights in education.” Then she learned about school choice and decided to fight for that, too. She traveled to Richmond to lobby for a school-choice bill that would give vouchers to any family in the state who wants to leave public school; she also tweeted and published messages in support of the bill from her group’s website and social media accounts.

Trust in teachers is plunging amid a culture war in education

Since the pandemic began, Brand has switched two of her three children into private school. She said she is pushing for the bill to help other families do the same.

“The ‘haves’ like me can just pick up their kids and move them to a private school, and everyone else is left behind,” Brand said. “School choice closes the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ It’s about supporting efforts for the best education for all kids at the same time.”

Jaclyn Friedman, founder and executive director of EducateUS: SIECUS in Action, a group that seeks to improve sex education in public schools, said she is worried but unsurprised to see the school-choice movement “succeeding in a terrifying way.” She said years of high-profile conflicts over the teaching of race, gender and history have primed many parents to feel receptive to the idea of yanking their children from public classrooms.

“We yell about critical race theory, then we yell about trans kids in the bathrooms, then we yell about sex education,” she said. “I think school choice is a very natural next step. These parents have already been poisoned against public schools by [misinformation] and disinformation.”

To be sure, the movement has suffered defeats. Efforts to put school-choice ballot initiatives before voters last year failed in California and Michigan. Arizona’s new Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs, is trying to roll back the program’s expansion in her state. In Kentucky, a program created in 2021 was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that public money is meant to support public school. Betsy DeVos, education secretary under President Donald Trump, is a leading advocate for school choice, but she failed to make progress on the federal level during her four-year term.

An explosion of culture war laws is changing schools. Here’s how.

But there have been clear victories as well. In 2021, in the wake of pandemic-driven shutdowns, several states expanded existing programs, and seven created new ones (not counting Kentucky’s).

In 2022, a half-dozen states expanded programs. That included Arizona, which blazed a new trail by making its ESAs available to everyone, including those already paying for private school with their own money. Once fully implemented in 2025, the program is expected to cost about $125 million per year, the majority going to families who were already in private schools or participating in home schooling.

In the opening weeks of 2023, new vouchers were packaged with a pay raise for teachers in the Utah legislature, where it passed easily and was signed into law. In Iowa, a $345 million annual program was approved over fierce objections of Democrats.

“Public schools are the foundation of our educational system, and for most families, they’ll continue to be the option of choice. But they aren’t the only choice. And for some families, a different path may be better for their children,” said Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R).

In Arkansas, Sanders said her plan would begin with the most at-risk families and expand to everyone in three years. One state official said the program is expected to provide families with about 90 percent of the per-pupil funding that the state normally sends to school districts. As in Utah, the governor is packaging the plan with a pay raise for teachers and other educational initiatives. It now goes to the state legislature.

School culture war campaigns fall flat in some tight races

Unlike scholarships or traditional vouchers, the new ESAs can be used for an array of educational expenses beyond tuition. That also opens the programs to home-schooling families and those with other nontraditional arrangements.

Most of the opposition comes from Democrats and teachers’ unions. But there has also been opposition from Republicans, including those who represent rural areas, where there are few options beyond the public school and where the school district is often the largest employer in the area.

That helps explain why there is no private school-choice program in Texas. But now Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has embraced the idea, and advocates see 2023 as their best chance at success.

“That will give all parents the ability to choose the best education option for their child,” Abbott said at a recent parent event, adding: “This is really about freedom.”

Historically, there also has not been much interest in vouchers among many suburban parents, who bought houses in desirable school districts and see no need to publicly fund private schools, said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. As a result, the existing voucher programs have been targeted and often limited to children in high-poverty schools or to those with special needs.

“This was the way Republican legislatures were sold this: It’s not going to disrupt your communities,” Hess said.

But throughout the pandemic, many parents grew frustrated by school policies around closures, masks and quarantines, which created more interest in vouchers in the suburbs and shifted the strategy, he said.

“We’ve gone from, ‘This is the right thing to do, by God, and we have to give vouchers to kids trapped in lousy schools,’ to, ‘All kinds of families should have options,’” he said. “If you’re only writing school-choice plans for those trapped in lousy schools, it’s harder to build coalitions.”