Bookman: Expect Georgia lawmakers to push school vouchers again with feigned sympathy for the poor

Give them an inch, it will take them a mile.

Give them a voucher system, they will take over your public school system.

Conservatives have pushed for vouchers for several decades on the grounds that they would help poor students “escape” public schools and transfer to supposedly better private schools. Opponents countered by accusing voucher advocates of using poor students as a cynical ploy, a pretext to obscure their long-term goal of using taxpayer dollars to fund their own exclusive education system.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time that feigned compassion for poor people has been used to enrich the wealthy. Not the last one either.

However, the dispute has now been resolved, as conservatives have given up the game in states such as Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma and Louisiana. In each of these states, what were initially limited voucher programs aimed at poorer students have evolved into expensive, taxpayer-funded entitlement programs for upper-middle class families, draining hundreds of millions of dollars from public education.

Let’s take our neighbor Florida as an example. Until two years ago, Florida’s voucher program was only available to households whose income was less than 260% of the federal poverty level, or $68,900 for a family of four. In 2021, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill raising the income limit to 350% of the poverty level, or $99,360, in a ceremony at a Catholic parochial school.

A program that was supposed to help the poor had become a handout to middle-class private schools, but that too proved to be only a temporary move. In March 2023, DeSantis stopped running for president long enough to sign a bill that would remove all income caps, just as voucher opponents had long predicted.

The effect was immediate. The number of Florida students receiving vouchers has doubled this school year, and the overwhelming majority of these new recipients – 69% – are students who already attended private schools and were able to pay private school tuition. According to the state’s own figures, 44% of new voucher recipients under the expanded program either come from households with incomes four times the poverty level (more than $120,000 for a household of four) or did not provide income information.

The new law also expands the list of permitted uses for home schooling vouchers. In Florida, you can now use your $8,600 tax credit to buy a 55-inch television for your child. You can use it to buy swings or foosball tables, Legos or stuffed animals, or pay for one-on-one training in sports like golf or baseball.

Thanks to Florida taxpayers, you can even use your voucher to pay for trips to Florida theme parks. Disney World, here we come! It’s an extraordinary, largely uncontrolled use of public money, especially in a state that is otherwise so stingy with education dollars that it spends less per student than much poorer states like Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi or Arkansas.

The situation is similar in Arizona, where Republican lawmakers just removed all income restrictions from its voucher program. They did so even though Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar expanded voucher program in 2018 by a margin of 65-35%. The voters had spoken, but the lawmakers didn’t care.

According to Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat and critic of the program, spending on vouchers this year “could represent 53.25% of all new K-12 education spending in the 2024 budget and benefit just 8% of Arizona students” and bankrupt the state.

And like Florida, parents in Arizona are using the vouchers not just to pay for things like piano lessons, but to buy real pianos, in one case spending nearly $4,000 in taxpayer money. When state officials were asked about this spending, they responded that it was “absolutely permissible.”

It’s important to keep such incremental steps in mind during Georgia’s upcoming legislative session, when Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to push for passage of a major voucher bill that would represent Georgia’s next step toward a system similar to that in Florida and others Similar to states. SB 233 offers a voucher worth about $6,000 and sets no household income limit for voucher recipients, but limits eligibility to students in the lowest-performing quartile of Georgia public schools.

However, as we have seen so clearly in other states, passage of SB 233 would not end the push for universal vouchers for all, but rather accelerate it. If SB 233 passes, voucher advocates will be at it again next year and the year after, always pushing to expand the program far beyond its intended purpose of “helping poor kids escape bad schools.” .

The tragedy is that independent research into long-standing voucher programs in Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, and Washington, D.C., has found that students who use vouchers to leave public schools perform sometimes significantly worse on standardized tests than their peers who continue stay in public education perhaps because of the poor quality of the private schools that poor families could afford with this voucher.

Here in Georgia, for example, $6,000 would not allow low-income parents to provide their children with a quality private education. But for families with means, it’s a sweet little taxpayer-funded entitlement, and who cares what impact that might have on funding for public education.