Archives for category: School Choice

Libby Stanford of Education Week reports on the sudden explosion of voucher legislation in Republican-controlled states. She quotes a spokesman for the Heritage Foundation, who says that school choice is expanding because of parent dissatisfaction with public schools.

But this acceleration is not a consequence of parental dissatisfaction, as the spokesman claims. It is the result of a well-organized, well-orchestrated, lavishly-funded campaign to defame public schools, led by the religious right and such organizations as the Koch network, the Heritage Foundation, The American Legislative Exchange Council, Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children, and the front groups they fund, such as Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Freedom. ALEC undoubtedly prepared model legislation and handed it out to their far-right allies in state legislatures.

None of these funders or their puppet groups are mentioned in the article. It is no accident that multiple red states are debating bills to enact vouchers for private and religious groups or that 75-80% of the voucher funding in every state will end up in the bank accounts of families whose children never attended public schools. The legislation should be characterized as a handout to families whose children never attended public school.

It doesn’t take much digging to understand that the crusade against “critical race theory” (which is taught in graduate classes in law and education, not in K-12), against any mention of homosexuality, against “dangerous” books in school libraries, against fictional children who need litter boxes in the classroom because they think they are cats or dogs—is absurd propaganda designed to discredit public schools and pave the way for public funding of religious schools, which freely discriminate against students and families and openly indoctrinate their students into their dogma.

Instead of identifying the Heritage Foundation as a major player in the war to destroy public education, Stanford quotes its spokesman, who spouts the line that school choice is the result of parent dissatisfaction. What she does not mention is that voucher supporters maneuver to avoid public referenda because they know the public is opposed to vouchers. Right wingers go to great lengths to avoid the word “vouchers” and to quash referenda, because they are afraid of the voters.

Students and teachers from East High School in Salt Lake City walk out of school to protest the HB15 voucher bill, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. Several years of pandemic restrictions and curriculum battles have emboldened longtime advocates of funneling public funds to private and religious schools in statehouses throughout the country.

Students and teachers from East High School in Salt Lake City walk out of school on Jan. 25, 2023, to protest legislation that would create private-school vouchers in the state. Several years of pandemic restrictions and curriculum battles have emboldened longtime advocates of funneling public funds to private and religious schools in statehouses throughout the country.

Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP

Stanford begins:

Emboldened by frustrations with pandemic-era policies and battles over what schools are teaching, conservative parents and politicians have accelerated a push for school choice policies that would funnel public funds into private schools.

Though school choice has been debated for decades, the movement is in a unique moment as advocates use parent concerns over COVID-era mask requirements; curriculum addressing race, gender, and sexuality; and library book content to bolster their argument that families should have more options outside of traditional public schools. And the school choice proposals states are considering—and, in some cases, have already passed—are more sweeping than previous iterations.

Already this year, lawmakers in at least 11 states—Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia—have introduced and, in some cases, passed school choice bills. Although they vary in scope, many of the bills would establish or expand private school voucher and education savings account programs that give families public funds to pay for tuition at private schools, cover the costs of homeschooling, or pay for other schooling expenses.

The resurgence of school choice action shouldn’t come as a surprise. During the 2022 midterm election cycle, 19 Republican gubernatorial candidates advocated for school choice, mostly in the form of vouchers and education savings accounts, on campaign websites. This year, seven governors so far have talked about school choice policies in their state of the state addresses, according to the Education Commission of the States.

The policies are a result of parents’ declining satisfaction with schools following the pandemic, said Jonathan Butcher, an education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that advocates for school choice policies.

Christopher Mathias wrote at Huffington Post about a group called Dissident Homeschool that provides resources for parents who want to teach their children to be Nazis. Through research and inquiry, he found the names of the couple who administer the site. Many of the states enacting voucher plans include payments for homeschooling. If you live in one of those states, your tax dollars might be subsidizing the training of Nazis.

Please read the entire article. It’s too long to repost in its entirety. It is awful that parents would do this, and worse that it is subsidized by public funds in many state voucher plans.

Mathias writes:

On Nov. 5, 2021, a married couple calling themselves “Mr. and Mrs. Saxon” appeared on the neo-Nazi podcast “Achtung Amerikaner” to plug a new project: a social media channel dedicated to helping American parents home-school their children.

“We are so deeply invested into making sure that that child becomes a wonderful Nazi,” Mrs. Saxon told the podcast’s host. “And by home-schooling, we’re going to get that done.”

The Saxons said they launched the “Dissident Homeschool” channel on Telegram after years of searching for and developing “Nazi-approved material” for their own home-schooled children — material they were eager to share.

The Dissident Homeschool channel — which now has nearly 2,500 subscribers — is replete with this material, including ready-made lesson plans authored by the Saxons on various subjects, like Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee (a “grand role model for young, white men”) and Martin Luther King Jr. (“the antithesis of our civilization and our people”).

There are copywork assignments available for parents to print out, so that their children can learn cursive by writing out quotes from Adolf Hitler. There are recommended reading lists with bits of advice like “do not give them Jewish media content,” and there are tips for ensuring that home-schooling parents are in “full compliance with the law” so that “the state” doesn’t interfere.

The Saxons also frequently update their followers on their progress home-schooling their own children. In one since-deleted post to Telegram, they posted an audio message of their kids shouting “Sieg Heil” — the German phrase for “hail victory” that was used by the Nazis.

Over the past year, the Dissident Homeschool channel has become a community for like-minded fascists who see home schooling as integral to whites wresting control of America. The Saxons created this community while hiding behind a fake last name, but HuffPost has reviewed evidence indicating they are Logan and Katja Lawrence of Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Logan, until earlier this week, worked for his family’s insurance company while Katja taught the kids at home.

The Anonymous Comrades Collective, a group of anti-fascist researchers, first uncovered evidence suggesting the Lawrences are behind Dissident Homeschool. HuffPost has verified the collective’s research.

The Lawrences did not respond to repeated requests for comment made via phone calls, text messages and emails. A HuffPost reporter also left a message in the Dissident Homeschool channel asking Mr. and Mrs. Saxon for comment about the Anonymous Comrades Collective’s research. That message was immediately deleted by the channel’s administrators, who then disabled the channel’s comment and chat functions.

A short time later, Katja Lawrence deleted her Facebook page.

Although the Lawrences will now surely face some public scorn and accountability, it’s likely their neo-Nazi curriculum is legal. A concerted, decades-long campaign by right-wing Christian groups to deregulate home schooling has afforded parents wide latitude in how they teach their kids — even if that means indoctrinating them with explicit fascism.

Meanwhile major right-wing figures are increasingly promoting home schooling as a way to save children from alleged “wokeness” — or liberal ideas about race and gender — in public and private schools. As extreme as the Dissident Homeschool channel is, the propaganda it shares targeting the American education system is just a more explicit and crass articulation of talking points made by Fox News hosts or by major figures in the Republican Party.

“Without homeschooling our children,” Mrs. Saxon once wrote, “our children are left defenseless to the schools and the Gay Afro Zionist scum that run them….”

Nazi Groomers

A post from Dissident Homeschool, a channel on Telegram where neo-Nazis learn to indoctrinate their children.

Mr. and Mrs. Saxon appeared to be thrilled to see their Dissident Homeschool channel gain a larger following. When the channel reached 1,000 subscribers, Mrs. Saxon posted a Nazi-era photo from Germany of uniformed schoolchildren throwing up fascist salutes. “It fills my heart with joy to know there is such a strong base of homeschoolers and homeschool-interested national socialists,” she wrote to mark the occasion. “Hail victory.”

Mrs. Saxon does the bulk of the posting in Dissident Homeschool, and developed extensive lesson plans that other neo-Nazi parents could use for their children. These lesson plans — about Christopher Columbus, the history of Thanksgiving and German Appreciation Day, as well as a “math assignment” about “crime statistics” that is meant to teach kids which “demographics to be cautious around” — are deeply racist.

One lesson plan about Martin Luther King Jr. tells parents to teach their kids that the revered civil rights leader was “a degenerate anti-white criminal whose life’s work was to make it impossible for white communities to protect their own way of life and keep their people safe from black crime.”

“Typically speaking,” Mrs. Saxon wrote in a post, “whites build societies whereas blacks destroy them.”

Included in the lesson plan is a copywork assignment for parents to print out, so that their kids can practice cursive while writing out a racist quote by George Lincoln Rockwell, the infamous American neo-Nazi.

Now that Florida is a red state, the legislature plans to offer vouchers to every student. The legislators expect to do maximum damage to public schools, which will inexorably lose funding and students. Nothing has been said about how to pay for the proposal. Voucher schools in the state are mostly religious and are completely unregulated. Neither their principals nor their teachers need to be credentialed. They are also free to discriminate on any grounds.

The Miami Herald reports:

Florida Republican lawmakers this year will consider offering every K-12 student thousands of dollars each year for their families to spend on education.

Parents would have access to state-funded accounts and use them to pay for private school tuition plus a wide variety of school-related expenses.

The proposal, if approved, would make the state’s school voucher program bigger than ever. But one key fact about the pitch remains elusive: its cost. It could total billions of dollars.

House Speaker Paul Renner said last week he plans to make the proposal, House Bill 1, a priority during the annual legislative session, which starts March 7.

The measure is already being fast-tracked. It will have its first committee hearing Thursday morning in Tallahassee.

So far, the measure carries no financial impact statement. That’s despite the knowledge that hundreds of thousands more children would be eligible for annual payments of about $8,000 each.

The cost, according to the staff analysis, is “indeterminate.” And that “is not reasonable,” said Norín Dollard, a senior research analyst at Florida Policy Institute, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on quality of life issues for Floridians. The group issued a report on voucher funding in September.

HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS NEW STUDENTS WOULD BE ELIGIBLE

About 266,000 Florida children attend private schools without using any current state scholarship or voucher, Dollard notes. All would be eligible for education savings accounts under the proposal. In addition, approximately 150,000 children receive home schooling.

HB 1 would provide accounts to as many as 10,000 of them in the first year, with more to come in following years. Conservative back-of-the-napkin math suggests that if just 25% of the newly eligible students participate, and those currently in the program remain, the added cost would reach $600 million, Dollard said.

As participation grows, the total could approach $4 billion or more within five years, she added. If that’s the policy decision in leadership, so be it, Dollard said. But it needs to be funded somehow.

A RECURRING FINANCIAL OBLIGATION

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, focused on that issue during a hastily called Monday evening Zoom meeting to discuss the measure with public education advocates.“

“We have very, very serious concerns,” Eskamani said during an interview. “This is an annual shift of money. Where is it coming from?”

When unveiling the measure at a news briefing, Renner said it was too early to know how much money might be needed. Much depends on how many children want to avail themselves of the vouchers, he said, and where the Legislature sets per-student funding for the year.

At the same time, Renner stressed his goal is to further open school choice so “no one is left out.” The bill would eliminate most eligibility restrictions, though it would prioritize children whose family income is at or below 185% of the federal poverty level — or $55,500 for a family of four.

It also would broaden uses of the money beyond private school tuition to include education expenses such as tutoring, testing and college courses. It would allow students to bank up to $24,000 for those uses, and further permit children already attending private schools without state support to request a share of the funds.

“To effectively deliver a quality education, policy makers and education advocates must accept that every student has unique learning needs, that education dollars belong to the student and not a system, and that public school choice offers every student an opportunity to customize their own education,” Renner said Tuesday, when asked about the associated costs.

A SPIKE IN PARTICIPATION IS EXPECTED

Dollard and others said they anticipate wide interest in participation, with much of it coming from families already paying for private schools. In Arizona, which has a similar education savings account program, the state reported 80% of applicants never attended public schools.

That flips the idea of money following the student on its head, Dollard suggested, because those students never had their education covered by state money in the first place.

School district finance officers said they understood the leadership’s position that the details aren’t firm enough to know the full financial impact.

But using the state’s most recent voucher expansion plan as a guide, they had concerns that this initiative would take money away from district budgets and leave them little ability to plan.

That’s what happened the last time the state expanded vouchers in 2021 with the taxpayer-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship. Officials touted the program as adding $200 million for vouchers, allowing 61,000 more children to afford private school.

Districts saw some money go out the door, but nothing like what happened in 2022. Halfway through the 2021-22 school year, school budget officers across the state learned that three times the amount of money they had set aside to send to voucher programs would be required, based on updated attendance figures from the state.

In some counties, such as Pasco, efforts to provide employee raises were derailed as the money officials expected to use was diverted to the vouchers. All told, the cost had grown to $1 billion.

The current year has provided similar sticker shock. The Legislature approved a budget with no specific amount set for the scholarships. By the second education funding calculation in July, the price tag had increased to $1.3 billion.

That meant the Miami-Dade County school district would have to send $225 million from its budget to the voucher program, for example, and the Hillsborough County school district would send $75 million.

When the third calculation came out this week, districts learned they would be losing even more. If the state lifts the eligibility restrictions, Pinellas County Schools chief finance officer Kevin Smith predicted, it will become even more difficult to predict the financial impact.

He suggested the state should at least consider taking the money out of the public education funding program and create a separate line item.

That way, schools would know what to expect and they could budget appropriately. In recent years, the DeSantis administration has taken the position that unexpected changes in enrollment can pose a financial strain on local school districts.

Read more at: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/education/article271630112.html#storylink=cpy

Jan Resseger looks behind the daily news and ties together fast-moving events in the red states. The sudden proliferation of voucher programs is no accident, she writes, nor is it a response to public demands. It is a carefully crafted, well-funded strategy to defund public schools, to smash teachers’ unions, and to implement a rightwing ideology that does not benefit students or improve education.

She writes:

This week in Iowa, Governor Kim Reynolds signed an Education Savings Account, universal voucher program into law. And last week in Utah, the same kind of voucher plan took the first step toward adoption when it was passed by Utah’s House of Representatives.

The Des Moines Register reports on Iowa’s new vouchers. The program will “phase in over three years and eventually allow all Iowa families to use up to $7,598 a year in an ‘education savings account’ for private school tuition. If any money is left over after tuition and fees, families could use the funds for specific educational expenses, including textbooks, tutoring, standardized testing fees, online education programs and vocational and life skills training. The $7,598 per private school student is the same amount of funding the state provides to public school students and is expected to rise in future years… The bill allows the Iowa Department of Education to contract with a third party to administer the education savings accounts, but the state has not yet issued a request for proposals from companies seeking to manage the funds.”

It would appear that the Iowa Legislature tried to calm the fears of the public school community by promising that, “Public school districts would also receive an additional $1,205 in funding for students receiving education savings accounts who live within the public school district’s boundaries.” But despite that promise, a drop in overall public school funding is expected: “By the fourth year, the (Legislative Services) agency estimates public school districts will receive $49.8 million in new per-student funds for private school students within the public district’s boundaries. The agency also expects a net decrease of $46 million in public school funding as a result of more students attending private schools.”

It is hard to keep track of all the states that now have school vouchers or are considering voucher programs and to know which states have the latest flavor of vouchers—Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Most ESA programs, unlike Iowa’s, don’t even require that families use the vouchers at private schools. In most places, ESA’s can be used for educational programs, for educational tools and materials like books and computers, and for homeschooling. In some states families can use the money for so-called micro-schools in which families come together and hire a teacher to work with children in someone’s home.

Why is there so much so much legislative activity about expanding vouchers? Several factors are important to consider, and many of them were the subject of economist Gordon Lafer’s analysis in The One-Percent Solution. Lafer’s book focused on the public policy that flowed from state legislatures after the Tea Party wave election in 2010, but his observations are still on point as we begin 2023. Lafer enumerates all the reasons why far-right ideologues and big corporate moneyed interests seek to undermine and privatize public schools: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce, National Federation for Independent Business, or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the agenda… The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all coalesce around the school system… There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government. Finally, the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence… (F)or those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than around public education. In all these ways, then, school reform presents something like the perfect crystallization of the corporate legislative agenda.” (The One-Percent Solution, pp 128-129)

It is hard for public school advocates to mobilize nationally against the expansion of vouchers. Voucher battles are fought state by state because public education and the funding of public education is a state-by-state issue. Advocates are likely to focus on public education legislation in their own state and not to pay attention to what’s happening elsewhere. And citizens are not likely to pay much attention to what is happening in the legislature. Once again, Gordon Lafer identifies the problem: “(M)any of the factors that strengthen corporate political influence are magnified in the states. First, far fewer people pay attention to state government, implying wider latitude for well-funded organized interests… Apart from labor unions and a handful of progressive activists, the corporate agenda… encounters little public resistance at the state level because hardly anyone knows about or understands the issues… So, too, corporate lobbies’ financial advantage is magnified in the states. Citizens United marked a sea change in state as well as federal politics.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 34-36)

Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University who has studied the impact of school privatization and the politics around privatizing public schools, recently published a reminder that school privatization is driven by the power of the corporate agenda. Expansion of vouchers has never been an expression of voters’ overall preference: “School choice is continuing to expand across the United states…. But these successes often come in spite of overwhelming voter opposition to school choice programs… According to the pro-voucher organization EdChoice.org, 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… 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… Washington voters passed a charter school referendum.”

Who are the far-right advocacy groups and think tanks powerfully promoting Education Savings Account vouchers? They include the usual suspects: the American Legislative Exchange Council and a state- by-state group of think tanks that are ALEC’s partners in the State Policy Network, EdChoice, the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Institute for Justice, which provides two model laws—“Education Savings Account Act: Publicly Funded,” and “Education Savings Account Act: Tax-Credit Funded“—so that state legislators can merely adapt a canned statute to their own state’s particular needs. SourceWatch reports corporate funding streams for these and other far-right think tanks that promote vouchers—funding from the Koch Brothers, the Bradley Foundation, and investments from the Donor’s Capital Fund, a powerful investor of corporate dark money since the 2010, U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United.

In the past two years, the campaign to undermine public schooling and promote the expansion of vouchers has developed a new strategy to convince parents that their children in public schools are being brainwashed by critical race theory and surrounded by discussion of gender and sexual orientation. In a new report published by the Network for Public Education this week, political scientist Maurice Cunningham traces the money behind what may appear to be a spontaneous emergence of parents’ groups—Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, and No Left Turn in Education. Cunningham points to clues that these are not local grassroots groups of parents; their websites, for example, betray a big investment in communications. And while, for example, the founders of Parents Defending Education (PDE) claim to be a bunch of working moms, Cunningham explains: “PDE took in $3,178,272 in contributions and grants in 2021… Donor’s Trust, a dark money donor associated with the Koch network donated $20,250 to PDE in 2021. The Achelis & Bodman Foundation which funds voucher and charter school programs and targets public education, contributed $25,000. Searle Freedom Trust, another right-wing donor with ties to Donors Trust, contributed $250,000 in 2021. We don’t know all the names on the checks, but we do know that those checks had to be pretty large, that the attorneys and consultants sit at the hierarchy of right-wing operatives, and that the board members and staffers are connected to the highest levels of conservative donors including the Koch network.”

The same people who are promoting vouchers are working to scare parents with the huge, culture war campaign driven by identifiable funders and a mass of dark money supporting an education marketplace and undermining parents’ confidence in public schools. But as Christopher Lubienski, the scholar who has studied the effect of the privatization of public education reminds us, expanding vouchers has not improved the outcomes for our children: “(R)ecent research is repeatedly showing 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… 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.”

The political theorist Benjamin Barber warns that school choice does not really provide freedom for families: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

Crooks & Liars found this story from Tennessee in Law & Crime about the principal of a Christian school who has been arrested twice for allegations of sex with minors.

This is of interest because Governor Bill Lee has made it a priority to bring charter schools and vouchers to his state, which would reduce public oversight of school employees. In the case of vouchers,there are typically no state regulations for certification or background checks.

Law&Crime reports:

A 47-year-old principal at a Christian private school in Tennessee was arrested for the second time in less than a year over allegations that he engaged in illegal sexual activity with multiple minors. Jason Kennedy was taken into custody last week and charged with four counts of sexual battery by an authority figure, two counts of continuous sexual abuse of a child, one count of aggravated sexual battery, and one count of solicitation of a minor to observe sexual conduct, records reviewed by Law&Crime show.

Kennedy was the principal and a teacher at Liberty Christian School when he was initially arrested in August and charged with two counts of sexual assault by an authority figure and one count of solicitation of a minor.

Brittney Branham, a 28-year-old secretary and homeschool coordinator at Liberty, was also arrested in August and charged with one count of solicitation of a minor in connection with the same series of incidents that allegedly took place inside Kennedy’s home, where Branham was also a resident, according to a report from Knoxville NBC affiliate WBIR-TV.

It really is better for all if teachers and principals are educated, certified, and subject to background checks.

Numerous states controlled by Republicans want to “let the money follow the child” to any place, without regulation or oversight or accountability. This is not in the best interest of children, society, or education.

Gary Rayno writes in InDepth NH about a Democratic proposal to put the State Department of Education in charge of the voucher program. Called “Education Freedom Accounts, the program was sold as a way to help low-income students in bad public schools transfer to better private schools. But about 75% of the students getting voucher money were already enrolled in private and religious schools. The free-market State Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut (who home-schooled his own children) projected that the program would cost $3.3 million, but it has actually cost $27 million in its two years of operation. Edelblut promised it would cut property taxes, but the cost of the program is projected to grow.

Rayno writes:

CONCORD — Several lawmakers seek changes to the new Education Freedom Account program with a package of bills addressing issues raised in its first two years of operation.

The program was included in the state’s two-year operating budget passed in 2021, and has been significantly over budget projections with more students than anticipated and what many view as insufficient oversight.

“It is hard to have oversight,” said the prime sponsor of House Bill 626, Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, “when you don’t have transparency, when you don’t have the data to look at.”

The bill, which had a public hearing Wednesday before the House Education Committee, would have the Department of Education administer and manage the program instead of the Children’s Scholarship Fund NH, which receives 10 percent of the program’s grant distribution under its contract with the state. The organization’s no-bid contract was approved by the Executive Council soon after the program was approved in the state’s operating budget.

The program allows the money parents receive to roll-over from year to year, unless the amount exceeds what would be a quarterly payment.

If the student graduates, leaves the freedom account program or is removed from the program for misuse of funds, the parents would be required to return any excess money to the Education Trust Fund under the bill.

The bill would also require students in the program to take one of the statewide assessment tests required of public school students as a comparison of how well the students in the program are doing, Luneau said.

Luneau and other supporters of the change say the program needs more oversight, accountability and transparency given the millions of dollars being distributed to parents.

The state has spent about $27 million during the first two years of the program, well above the $3.3 million budget Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut projected would be the cost.

He asked for $30 million each year of the next biennial budget in requests to the Governor’s Office.

Luneau told the committee that is $90 million in the first four years of the program coming out of the Education Trust Fund, and $9 million of it going to the scholarship fund.

He said he believes with added staff, the department could manage and administer the program for much less money and have the data needed for better accountability, transparency and assessment.

Why use tax dollars to pay the overhead of a private company, when you are already paying the department to oversee kids’ education in the state, Luneau said.

To date, about 75 percent of the funds for the program have gone as subsidies to parents of students who were enrolled in private or religious schools prior to the program’s start.

Of the 3,000 students in the program this year, about 700 attended a public school the year before.

Luneau said the reports include the kids who were in private and religious schools before the program began to show how successful it is, but that is not saving any taxpayers money but is using money from the Education Trust Fund.

Luneau is prime sponsor of another bill prohibiting using the money as a subsidy for private or religious school tuition.

Supporters of the program sold it as a way for lower income parents to afford to find the best education opportunities for their students while saving property tax dollars for taxpayers.

Luneau said taxpayers who fund public schools receive a great deal more accountability, oversight and transparency of their tax dollars than they do in the freedom account program, adding the reports the scholarship fund has provided are laughable; they are so incomplete.

The view of Republican legislators is that parents alone offer accountability. If they don’t like the program, they will leave it. Since 3/4 of them are already enrolled in private and religious schools, they should be overjoyed that the taxpayers are underwriting the cost.

Open the link and read the rest of the article.

Utah’s House passed a voucher bill, even though the state voted against them by 62-38% in 2007. Republicans in Utah are determined to bypass a referendum, as they are in other states, because voters have never passed one. Voters don’t want to defund their public schools.

You can bet that 70-80% of the students who get vouchers are already enrolled in private religious schools. That’s the proportion reported in every state that has vouchers. The small number who ask for vouchers will lose ground academically and eventually return to their local public school. The research is unequivocal: vouchers do NOT improve academic achievement. They are a gift to parents whose kids are already in private schools.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

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Utah House pushes through controversial voucher bill after suspending rules

HB215 would allow taxpayer funds to be spent on private schooling and home schooling. The largest teachers union in the state is opposed. 

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, sponsor of HB215, is pictured on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. Her bill was approved by the House on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, after less than 24 hours of consideration.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, sponsor of HB215, is pictured on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. Her bill was approved by the House on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, after less than 24 hours of consideration.

By Courtney Tanner

A controversial bill to create a taxpayer-funded, $42 million school voucher program in Utah — the most expansive in state history — was pushed through the House on Friday under suspended rules that allowed lawmakers to approve it without the required wait time.

The Republican-led proposal was approved on a 54-20 vote that came during the final minutes of floor time of the first week of what’s already shaped up to be a fast and wild legislative session.

“This is the beginning of us reinventing public education in Utah,” declared Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, the sponsor of HB215.

The bill sets up what Pierucci has called the “Utah Fits All Scholarship” that would allow students to use public money to attend private schools or be home-schooled. It’s touted as a way to give parents and kids more choice in education.

Pierucci’s proposal also includes an ongoing $6,000 salary and benefits raise for teachers across the state — made contingent on approving the vouchers.

The measure is opposed by the largest teachers union in Utah, which has said educators feel devalued by having their paycheck tied to a voucher program many don’t support and many worry will further hobble Utah’s public schools. Per pupil funding in the state is already among the lowest in the nation, passing only Idaho.

An attempt by Democratic Rep. Angela Romero of Salt Lake City to split the bill into two was voted down Friday by the conservative-majority body. Romero argued that teacher raises shouldn’t be a bargaining chip to pass other policies.

“I think these are two different issues, and they need to be discussed in two different bills,” she said.

Democrats and a few Republicans stood with her, including Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield. He called it “disingenuous” to connect the issues as a way to force support.

But Rep. Douglas Welton, R-Payson, who is a public school teacher, voted in favor of the bill with the raises — even after calling it “one of the biggest bribes.” He said he’d like to see more work done before any final passage of the bill, which will go next to the Senate.

The vote to pass the bill Friday was supported only by Republican lawmakers. All 13 Democrats in the House, along with seven Republicans, voted to oppose. Still, the vote was enough to represent two-thirds of the body. If the bill passes with the same margin in the Senate, it’s secure from both a veto or referendum.

Pierucci has insisted on the two issues of teacher pay and vouchers remaining together as a funding package. She believes it shows that even though the state wants students to be able to explore other education options, it also still supports public school educators; she talked about her own experience growing up attending public schools in Utah.

After the bill passed in committee late Thursday, she made a few changes before it was heard on the House floor Friday morning.

Her amended bill capped the amount allocated each year for the program at $42 million, instead of allowing it to grow with the annual adjustments to the weighted pupil unit amount, or WPU — which has caused problems in other states with similar programs. The WPU here, which is currently set at about $4,000, is what each public school is given by the state for each child enrolled there (not counting additional add-ons for students with disabilities).

But Pierucci didn’t change the amount her scholarship would allocate per student, which has been a source of heartburn. The Utah Fits All Scholarship is an $8,000 award — which is double the WPU set by the state.

Pierucci said she arrived at the figure by combining the roughly $4,000 WPU with the average amount spent by each Utah school district on students, which is about another $4,000. That second portion is collected locally, through property taxes, and is subject to local control and decision making on how to spend it.

Some have argued that isn’t a fair setup and values the scholarship students more than those who elect for public schools. And for every student who leaves a public school to enroll elsewhere, they said, the school no longer gets their WPU and essentially loses funding and state support.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said she doesn’t believe the bill supports low-income families, as Pierucci has argued.

Pierucci says students in households living below the poverty line will be prioritized for the scholarship.

But Hollins said many of those families wouldn’t be able to use it anyway because they don’t have the transportation to go to a private school and wouldn’t be able to pay the difference between the scholarship and private school tuition. The average tuition at a private school in Utah is roughly $11,000 a year.

“It doesn’t give every student equal access,” Hollins said, noting people in her district are choosing between paying for the bus to go to work, buying new shoes and keeping the lights on.

Others said they were worried about sending public dollars to private institutions that have no requirements by the state to hire licensed teachers or to teach a set curriculum. Most of the schools are religious. And there’s no obligation for private schools to help students with disabilities.

“Because it’s public money it should go to public schools,” which are held publicly accountable, said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, a former public school teacher.

The biggest concern raised by the largely Democratic opposition, though, was the rush to vote on the bill. The rules in the House typically require a bill to be on the calendar for 24 hours before a vote, giving lawmakers a chance to read through it before debate. It was only 19 hours after the bill passed in committee that the full House voted on it Friday, after suspending the rules.

The most recent draft with Pierucci’s amendments “was numbered at 10:00 this morning, introduced and debated under suspension of the rules at 11:15, and passed at about 12:30. For no good reason,” wrote Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, on Twitter after the vote.

He added: “Voting by an informed body and public could just as easily have been done Monday morning. #abuseofpower”

Pierucci and others, though, said it was largely the same bill with a few small changes that she’d been working on this week — and had tried to pass last year but failed.

The other changes she made include allowing a student to attend public school part time and then get a partial scholarship to get private tutoring or do home schooling for the remainder.

Rep. Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, said she liked that addition, suggesting it opened up the scholarship to more students living in rural areas that might not have access to a nearby private school (most of those are concentrated on the Wasatch Front).

The other change was what Pierucci is calling an added “accountability measure.” In the original bill, the test scores of students leaving public schools for private schools was not allowed to be tracked. Opponents wanted that provision to be able to study the success of the program.

In the version passed Friday, students on the scholarship have the option to take an assessment at the end of the year or submit a portfolio of their work in school to the scholarship administrator as proof of their education. Peterson believes that will help see if the vouchers “move the needle.” Others said it wasn’t strong enough.

Peterson said the bill supports the Republican values of creating choices and a competitive market for schools. And she likes the “guardrails,” too, for the administrator that will oversee the program.

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, agreed, adding that in recent years he’s talked to parents with concerns about the books being taught in public schools — which he ran legislation on last year. And he didn’t like that schools required masking at times during the pandemic and feels parents should have a choice outside of that.

Pierucci said her impetus has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which she said proved to her that not all students thrive in public schools.

“The last couple of years,” she said, “have highlighted that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for every child.”

author

Linda Lyon is a retired naval officer and past president of the Arizona School Boards Asociatuon, as well as her local school board. Her blog is called Restore Reason, and she writes here about the struggle to save public schools from antagonists who prefer to save money and who are antagonistic to anything that serves the public good.

She writes:

Those of you’ve who’ve been around awhile will remember lobbyist Grover Norquist, who founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985. This was during the Reagan years, when government was seen as a drag on the free market. Norquist is probably best known for this quote in 2001: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”

It has been obvious for many years that Arizona Republican lawmakers want to drown our district schools since the budget for K-12 education makes up almost 44% of the state budget. But then, the predominant responsibilities of the AZ state government are to provide for the public safety and public education, so…it stands to figure that education would comprise a large portion of the budget.

If you’ve listened to the AZ Republican lawmaker talking points over the last few years, you’d tend to believe that public education has been showered with funding. The truth however is quite another story. In fact, adjusting for inflation, K-12 funding per public school student hasn’t increased in 21 years and leaves us still 48th in the nation. In 2001, districts were provided $8,824 per student and now, only $8,770. The high-water mark in 2007 of $10,182 per student was under Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano. This was actually $1,412 more than in 2022.

You see, pretty much all the GOP has been doing over the last few years is to reinstate funding they took away to begin with. And to add insult to injury, they’ve been chipping away at the amount available to district schools by continuous expansion of privatization options.

Guess you’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the battle over vouchers (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) during the past decade. ESAs were enacted in 2011 and GOP lawmakers have been steadily expanding these vouchers over the years. In 2022, (I’m really cutting to the chase here), they were finally successful in enacting a universal expansion. Not only are students no longer required to have previously attended a district school to qualify for a voucher, but there are no guardrails or cap and no transparency or accountability for private schools. And, only two months into the new law, AZ DOE had received nearly 30,000 filings for the vouchers, totaling an immediate hit to the state fund of $210M. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee only budgeted $33M for the program for the 2022-23 school year, but some now estimate the bill could approach as much as $500M.

Student Tuition Organizations (STOs) are another vehicle to poke holes in the district funding life raft. They allow tax payers to take a dollar-for-dollar reduction in their state taxes when they give to an approved STO which provides scholarship funding to children attending grades K-12 at qualified private schools in Arizona. These STOs basically serve as a pass-through for tax credit donations to private schools while keeping 10 percent for themselves. STOs have also seen tremendous expansion over the years with the individual tax credit amount now at $1,306 which is over six times that which taxpayers can give to district schools. There are also two types of tax credits corporations can take and the combined cap for those is now up to $141M.

Just introduced last week by Representative Livingston, is HB 2014 which seeks to expand the aggregate dollar amount of STO tax credits from $6M in 2021-22 to $10M in 2022-23, to $15M in 2023-24, and to $20M in 2024-25. It also would eliminate the need for recipients of a corporate, low-income scholarship to have attended a district school prior to receiving the scholarship. Keep in mind that removing the requirement to have first attended a district school prior to receiving STO or ESA monies, accommodates students already in private school or being homeschooled, at their parent’s expense. In fact, that was the case for 80% of the filings for the universal expansion last year. And, when a student taking an ESA or STO scholarship was never in a district school, there is zero reduction in cost to that district school and ultimately, taxpayers.

These schemes are chipping away at the foundation of our district (community) schools so that eventually, they can be “drowned in the bathtub”. This is not by accident, but rather, by design. There are those in the Legislature, who do not believe in equal opportunity to learn and thrive, but rather, in survival of the fittest. And, they are hell-bent on deciding who the “fittest” are. Privatizing public education primarily serves those who “have” at the expense of those who “have not”. This continued war on public education will continue to weaken our communities and our democracy as it solidifies power and influence with those at the very top.

Want to fight back? Go to SOSArizona.org.

Mercedes Schneider takes issue with the new authoritarians who are imposing book bans in the name of “freedom” and limiting free expressions of views they disagree with in the name of of “choice.”

She writes:

We are certainly in an age in which the term, “free speech,” is indeed not free because of increasing conservative pressure to shape speech into that which a minority of extreme, right-wing conservatives would agree with.

Of course, that is not “free speech” at all.

In my school district, the St. Tammany Library Alliance is combating the right-wing conservative push to ban library books not to its liking. In its campaign declaring “Libraries Are for Everyone,” the Alliance is circulating a petition that states the following:

St Tammany Parish is a welcoming community to all and we stand firmly against banning books. As such we endorse the following statements:

  • We believe that all young people in our Parish deserve to see themselves reflected in our library’s collection.
  • We know a large majority of Americans (75%) across the political spectrum oppose book bans.We stand in opposition to the St Tammany Parish Accountability Project’s proposed “Library Accountability Board” ordinance because we believe parents should not be making decisions for other parents’ children about what they read or what is available in our public libraries.
  • Banning books from public libraries is a slippery slope to government censorship and a violation of our first amendment rights.
  • We hold our library Director, board and library staff in high regard and trust them to do their jobs.

We are united against book bans and we ask that our Parish President and Council pledge to act to protect the rights of members of our community to access a variety of books, magazines and other media through our public libraries.

Those truly adhering to and protecting free speech are at risk of losing their jobs– and under increasing pressure to modify their speech in order to please the extreme, disgruntled few.

I gladly signed the petition. Even though it is not likely that I might choose to read certain books harbored in my local public library, there is something much greater at risk if I try to impose a self-tailored book purge, and that something is freedom itself.

Freedom is not freedom if I tailor the freedom of others to suit my own preferences.

A great irony is that some of the same folks who would shape education and curriculum into their preferred image also promote themselves as great advocates of “school choice.”

Mercedes goes on to describe examples of “choice” that is no choice at all.” Freedom is curtailed when one group of people can curtail the rights of others to disagree.

Please open the link and read her warning about the threat to democracy posed by today’s narrow-minded ideologues.

In Michigan, conservative groups tried to get two initiatives on the ballot in 2022, but did not file enough valid signatures in time. The same consultants promoted both propositions.

Betsy DeVos poured millions into the voucher campaign, in hopes of getting it passed by a Republican legislature and avoiding a referendum. In a previous referendum, Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected vouchers for private and religious schools.

Democrats won control of both houses of the legislature in 2022, so that idea is dead, for now.

Beth LeBlanc of The Detroit News reported:

Conservative groups last month abandoned their efforts to pass voter-initiated laws seeking to create stricter voter identification rules and a tax-incentivized scholarship fund in Michigan that could be used for private school education.

The demise of the Let MI Kids Learn ballot initiative serves as a blow to the West Michigan family of former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Republican mega-donor who helped to launch the effort to create a tax incentive that would finance private school scholarships for students whose parents could not afford the tuition.

Members of the DeVos family contributed roughly $7.9 million toward the Let MI Kids Learn ballot initiative in 2021 and 2022, making up the lion’s share of the financing for the effort, according to state campaign finance records….

The end of the Let MI Kids Learn ballot initiative marks a “major victory for public school students, parents and educators,” said Casandra Ulbrich, a spokesperson for an opposition group called For MI Kids, for MI Schools.

The Secure MI Vote initiative, which also was pulled on Dec. 28, had largely been rendered irrelevant by the November passage of Proposal 2, which cemented in the Michigan Constitution voting rules that Secure MI Vote sought to change in statute, said Jamie Roe, spokesman for the Secure MI Vote effort and a Republican political consultant.