Vouchers: Fighting Back on Behalf of Our Students and Communities

Since the early 2000s, many states have introduced significant voucher programs to provide public financing for private school education. These voucher programs are deeply damaging to efforts to offer an excellent public education for all U.S. children as highlighted in two new blogposts about the failure of vouchers. The first is from the Economic Policy Institute’s Hilary Wething and Josh Bivens on how the intent of voucher proponents to damage public schools.  The second comes from MSU professor Josh Cowen outlining the main voucher threats to public school funding that  come from massive and growing new costs at the state level, as states pick up the tab for private tuition previously paid by individual households. 

Our public schools, the heart of so many communities across America, are facing an unprecedented attack. Powerful special interests are pushing hard for multiple forms of vouchers, from education savings accounts to universal voucher programs and other privatization schemes that would divert billions of dollars from neighborhood public schools. 

But make no mistake, these efforts are not about improving student achievement or giving parents an authentic voice in the kinds of services their children receive. Independent studies of voucher programs in states across the country have found that children in voucher programs perform far worse than their peers. In fact, education researchers who study vouchers say their effects are larger than natural crises like Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 pandemic. In state after state, vouchers have led to achievement declines.  

However, these attacks are not designed to improve achievement. They are intended to destroy public education. The push for vouchers is a well-funded effort from billionaires like the DeVoses, the Kochs, and the Waltons who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in funding campaigns and dark money efforts to gut public schools and keep their taxes low. In fact, in the past few months, this coordinated campaign has led to a surge in voucher programs (with few to no limits on eligibility) in an unprecedented number of states where DeVos-style Republicans control all of the levers of power.

This is a direct threat to the schools that have educated generations of American children, binding communities together along the way. We cannot let special interests hijack America’s public schools without a fight. Our students and public schools need us to stand up and reject this attempt to undermine the institutions that represent the best of America.

Voucher supporters urge taxpayers to roll the dice on something that does not work, instead of looking at what does work. The AFT isn’t just fighting back; we’re championing the Real Solutions for Kids and Communities campaign to show that we can reject the toxic attacks against public education in favor of working to strengthen public schools, making real solutions for kids a national priority.

We also have to organize to defeat vouchers and want you to have tools to help fight back because when it comes to the long-term damage from vouchers, there is no upside. We must fight against vouchers at the national, state and grassroots levels with parents and communities who are fighting for their future.

The facts are on our side, and so is public opinion; that’s why vouchers have never won at the ballot box. To help with this, we are launching a portal that includes many resources for you to use, including a  toolkit put together with our partner, the National Coalition for Public Education.

The AFT co-founded NCPE in 1978 and the group currently comprises more than 50 education, civic, civil rights and religious organizations that support the use of public funds for public schools. NCPE opposes funneling taxpayer money to private and religious schools through private school voucher schemes, and its members can be key allies in building anti-voucher coalitions.

We encourage you to take a look. The toolkit provides specific messaging, polling, graphics and research you can use, depending on your needs. We can work with you to tailor the document to specific campaigns.

Here are some of the resources we have available:

Key Points

Public schools are key to protecting our democracy and have Americans’ support.

  • Public schools represent our civic values and ideals: Education is so vital for individuals and society that a free education must be available to every child. All young people should have opportunities to prepare for life, college, career and citizenship.
  • In a pluralistic society, people with different beliefs and backgrounds must learn to bridge differences. As the founders believed, an educated citizenry is essential to protect our democracy from demagogues.
  • Claims that parents want to leave public schools or do not believe in them are false. Poll after poll has shown that America’s trust in public schools is at an all-time high. Every effort to put vouchers up to a vote has been rejected handily. In a 2022 poll, results show that parents and communities trust their children’s public school teachers and support their local public schools.
    • 54 percent of Americans rated their local public schools an “A” or a “B.”
    • 63 percent of Americans reported a “great deal or a good amount” of confidence in the teachers at their local public schools.
    • 64 percent of Americans rated their satisfaction with local public schools an “A” or a “B.”

Vouchers undermine public schools and would pull society apart.

  • Vouchers divert desperately needed public resources from the public school system to fund a second system consisting of the education of a few students at private schools—without offering any actual reforms with no oversight of the second system. The government would better serve our children by using these funds to strengthen public schools.
  • They are a poor investment for our communities: Vouchers don’t save money because they require additional funding to support a separate education system for private gain.
  • In a column for the Albert Shanker institute, Michigan State University professor Josh Cowen wrote that “Despite an ever-growing volume of data showing that direct and sustained dollar investments in public schools yields large and inter-generational opportunity, the alternative scheme to divert those dollars into individual accounts for side-item educational expenses is alive and well .”

Vouchers undermine civil rights with taxpayers’ money.

  • Too often, private schools that use vouchers do not adequately serve students with disabilities because these schools do not have to follow federal and state laws or provide the same services as required in traditional public schools.
  • Too often, private schools that accept vouchers deny admission to, discipline or expel LGBTQIA+ students and students with LGBTQIA+ family members. Many also teach anti-LGBTQIA+ curricula, including conversion therapy.
  • Many private voucher schools have a religious litmus test for students and families.
  • Vouchers continue racial segregation. They disproportionately serve white students, and the history of modern-day vouchers is found in the era of segregation.
  • Private schools are able to reject kids with special needs who require more expensive supports and can refuse individualized education programs (IEPs).

Voucher programs lack accountability and promote fraud.

  • Private school vouchers fail to provide accountability to taxpayers. Most voucher programs lack accountability measures, and many also lack proper oversight to ensure they meet even the minimal standards that do exist.
  • Without any meaningful accountability, voucher programs are vulnerable to fraud and abuse.