Christopher Lubienski is Professor of Education Policy and director of the Center for Evaluation and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. Among his publications is The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. In this article, which appeared in The Tennessean, he points out that vouchers are unpopular as well as ineffective. So unpopular are they that they are usually sold another another name, like “education scholarships.”

He writes:

Recently, a panel of judges dismissed lawsuits against Tennessee’s private school voucher program passed by the General Assembly back in 2019. A month before that decision, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of its legislature’s efforts to implement a universal voucher program. These types of legal victories may seem like good news for parents’ rights, but they are also a reminder that the school choice movement is missing a key source of support: the voters.

School choice is continuing to expand across the United States. New Hampshire implemented a statewide voucher program in 2021, and this year Arizona legislators also adopted a universal voucher program.

But these successes often come in spite of overwhelming voter opposition to school choice programs. Arizona lawmakers had passed a similar measure in 2018, only to see the initiative soundly rejected by a 2-to-1 margin at the ballot box. This time around, policymakers successfully undercut an effort to put their initiative back before the electorate.

In Michigan, school choice advocates appeared to have ignored a deadline to place their proposal for a voucher program on the ballot. Since such measures had been overwhelmingly rejected by Michigan voters twice before, voucher proponents instead exploited a quirk in state law that allowed them to put the issue directly before the GOP-run legislature while preempting any veto from the Democratic governor. (Unfortunately for their plan, Michigan voters then flipped the legislature to Democratic control.)

This voter-avoidance strategy is clear with school choice programs across the U.S. According to the pro-voucher organization, the U.S. has over 75 publicly funded private school choice programs, including vouchers and education savings accounts, as well as another 45 charter school programs. But all of these programs have been implemented by legislators, not the electorate. Following these legislative actions, judges, not voters, can get their say.

In fact, voters have been allowed to weigh in on school choice programs only nine times since 2000, and they almost always reject them, often by overwhelming margins. Only twice did school choice programs pass through the ballot box. In 2012 Georgia voters empowered their legislature with the ability to create charter schools. That same year, although they had clearly rejected it twice before, Washington voters passed a charter school referendum by the slimmest of margins following financial support from Bill Gates and associates for the measure.

This reflects an interesting conflict. Parents seem to like choice programs. Perhaps that’s not surprising, since people are often happy to receive public subsidies. But when asked, voters consistently and overwhelmingly reject these programs.

Policymakers and choice advocates have largely come down on the side of parent rights in endorsing school choice. Since this puts them in opposition to voters, they largely avoid the electorate on the issue.

But policymakers would do well to remember that this is not just a question of who controls education decision-making. After all, they are entrusted with the wise use of taxpayers’ dollars. And recent research is repeatedly showing that the voters may be on to something: that vouchers are not a good investment. Although publicly funded vouchers may be propping up some private schools that might otherwise go out of business, they are not really helping the people they purport to help. In fact, despite parent satisfaction, study after study shows that students using vouchers are falling behind where they would have been if they had remained in public schools. Thus, policymakers might think twice about defying voters on initiatives that actually cause harm to children.

It’s a curious approach for a movement that claims to be working for the grass roots.

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