Across the nation, in both Red and Blue states, policymakers are waking up to the fact that school vouchers are a very bad idea.
Pennsylvania would be wise to follow their lead.
Voucher programs such as the PASS, Lifeline, and Education Savings Account (ESA) vouchers that have been supported by Gov. Josh Shapiro and some state lawmakers are peddled as having strong guardrails, a low cost, and being limited to only a small, select group of students. However, we have seen that the stroke of a pen in a state Capitol can strip out accountability and turn a limited voucher program into one with universal eligibility, exploding costs for taxpayers, reducing funding available for public schools, and creating endless opportunities for waste, fraud, and abuse.
Take Arizona, for example. In 2011, Arizona enacted “Empowerment Scholarship Account” vouchers for special education students. Tax dollars were put into an account for families to use for educational expenses and the program cost $1.6 million that year. Over time, the ESA voucher program was expanded to include additional students, including foster students, students in military families, and students in low-performing schools. In 2022, Arizona expanded eligibility to all students, creating a universal voucher program in the state.
Voucher supporters sold a story to Arizonans that universal vouchers would cost just $64 million, when in fact, the price tag for offering a voucher to every student in the state turned out to cost Arizonans more than $900 million this fiscal year alone.
No policymaker in Arizona should have been surprised that families whose children were already in a private school would be delighted to have state taxpayers pick up the tab for their children’s expenses. More than 70% of families that scooped up the $7000 checks offered through the universal voucher program in Arizona were not enrolled in public schools. And these families haven’t restricted their use of education tax dollars to paying private school tuition. A recent report found that taxpayers in the Grand Canyon State are now funding voucher families’ Ninja warrior training, passes to ski resorts, golf equipment, pricey subscriptions for international snack deliveries, and much more.
Similar stories of voucher expansion and wasted education dollars are coming out of Florida, where 70% of voucher recipients were already in private schools and families are using tax dollars to pay for big screen TVs, paddleboards and tickets to Disney. And in Iowa, where the phase-in of a universal voucher program is finding that two-thirds of voucher recipients were already in private schools and the program is far exceeding its projected costs.
Governors and lawmakers around the country are learning from these cautionary tales.
Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed a voucher bill that came before her in November of 2021. In January of 2023, a DeVos-funded group recognized Witmer and the Michigan legislature as so strongly supportive of public education that they ended their school privatization campaign in Michigan completely.
In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the state legislature allowed a tax credit voucher program to expire in 2023, ending school vouchers in their state.
Gov. Roy Cooper recently called for a moratorium on unaccountable voucher program spending and proclaimed 2024 as “The Year of Public Schools” in North Carolina.
Even the Republican strongholds of Texas and Georgia have rejected new voucher proposals, as Republican lawmakers have joined with their Democratic counterparts in opposing vouchers that they recognize will have a devastating impact on rural school districts.
A new voucher program in Pennsylvania should be a nonstarter for Gov. Shapiro and state lawmakers.
First and foremost, scarce education dollars must be directed to public schools to bring Pennsylvania in compliance with the recent Commonwealth Court decision that declared the current school funding system unconstitutional. This will require an investment of at least $5.1 billion in new state funding. Every dollar that is directed to a private school voucher puts the constitutional promise of a quality public education further out of reach of our children.
And let’s not forget that Pennsylvanians already spend $490 million each year on vouchers for unaccountable and discriminatory private schools through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. Data collection for these programs is so limited by current law that a 2022 report from the Independent Fiscal Office found that, “… it is not possible to comment on whether state funds have been used effectively due to lack of general and specific outcome data.” In other words, no one knows who benefits from the $490 million spent vouchers each year or what impact this spending has on students’ educational outcomes.
Billionaire-funded pro-school privatization organizations will be flooding Pennsylvania with money, pushing to get a new voucher program enacted in the Commonwealth. Governor Josh Shapiro and state lawmakers should reject the snake oil these groups are selling and instead work to ensure that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality education at their neighborhood public school.
Susan Spicka, a former School Director at Shippensburg Area School District, is the Executive Director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania.
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