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As summer nears, America's newest and largest international dark sky sanctuary beckons, rural job growth is up, but full recovery remains elusive, rural Americans living in prison towns support a transition, while birth control is more readily available in rural areas.

GOP threatens rural Republicans for school voucher opposition

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Thursday, May 16, 2024   

By Lane Wendell Fischer for The Daily Yonder.
Broadcast version by Mark Moran for Iowa News Service reporting for The Daily Yonder-Public News Service Collaboration

State Republican leaders are cracking down on rural members of their own party who oppose universal school vouchers, which allow families to take a portion of their state’s education funding away from public schools to pay for their child’s private education.

Rural state legislators have been more likely to oppose school voucher laws because they worry the programs will weaken local public schools without ensuring educational investments for rural students. 

Opposition to vouchers has been a rare point of agreement between rural Republicans and urban Democrats, who also tend to oppose vouchers.

But recently, the state leaders in the Republican Party have resorted to more aggressive tactics to force voucher legislation through to the governor’s desk, said Jennifer Berkshire, author of the forthcoming book called The Education Wars: The Citizen’s Guide and Defense Manual, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

“The biggest change that has happened over the last few years is a fairly successful effort to define school choice as a kind of litmus test for Republicans, the way that something like abortion has been historically,” Berkshire said. 

Public schools provide more than just a high school diploma in rural areas, which frequently lack private alternatives. They are a large employer, serve as public gathering spaces for community events, and they inform the community’s next generation of workers, voters, and leaders.

Berkshire, who’s reported extensively on the politics of public schools, said that the voucher debate isn’t new, but it’s been heating up in the past few years. She said the Republican Party has been ramping up this fight for years now by degrading perceptions of public education, framing it as a welfare program and the source of radical indoctrination.

While rural voters and legislators haven’t been swayed by the quasi-populist rhetoric and continue to oppose private school vouchers, Republican Party leaders are spending millions of dollars to challenge rural Republican defectors.

Just last month in Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott targeted Republican members of the state house who opposed his school choice initiative using out-of-state cash from billionaire donors and super PACs. Six members were defeated in the March 5 primary and four more were forced into runoffs.

In response, grassroots campaigns against aggressive pro-voucher efforts are popping up, like Reclaim Idaho. The organization, co-founded by Idaho resident Luke Mayville, mobilized a group of teachers, administrators, families, students, and others to oppose vouchers.

“A critical factor has been the outpouring of phone calls, emails, and public testimony from Idahoans across the state,” Mayville said. “Public comment and testimony has made it very clear that the school-voucher agenda is not the will of the people.”

What’s a School Voucher?

School voucher programs have taken different forms in different states, to maneuver around restrictive state constitutions and resistant citizens. 

In traditional school voucher programs, when a family chooses to send their child to a private school, the state government directly awards the private schools with taxpayers funds to cover at least part of the cost of the student’s education.

This practice was found unconstitutional in states like Colorado, where the state’s Supreme Court ruled that one district’s voucher program violated separation of church and state because it funneled public funds to religious schools. 

A new voucher program, commonly called an Educational Savings Account (ESA), has become a popular and successful route that Republicans have taken to advance their school choice agenda.

Unlike traditional vouchers that directly award public funds to private schools, ESAs deposit taxpayer funds into savings accounts that families can use to pay for various educational purposes including tuition at private and religious schools.

In states where resistance to voucher programs has been more robust, Republicans are also experimenting with tax credit programs that provide tax relief to businesses or individuals who donate to organizations that give educational scholarships to students attending private schools. 

Another important term in the school-voucher debate is “universal.”

Historically, school vouchers were limited to students in need — like students who are disabled or come from low-income homes — so they could gain access to particular services that their local public school may not provide. 

That changed in 2021 and 2022, when West Virginia and Arizona became the first two states to enact universal school choice, allowing any family, regardless of their socioeconomic status, to gain access to taxpayer dollars to cover private school tuition. 

Since then, nine other states have joined in adopting universal voucher programs, and more are considering similar programs.

Welfare for the Wealthy?

Proponents of school choice say that voucher programs will help resolve educational inequities across the country for students, especially for students in need. 

“In any area, some number of families may decide that the assigned neighborhood school is not working for their students,” said Andy Smarick, who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank committed to policy research in areas like school choice. “School choice enables those families to access other options.”

Smarick acknowledged that there are specific challenges that make school voucher programs less popular in rural areas, like lack of access to private schools and higher risks of public school consolidation or closure.

“To date at least, more densely populated areas have benefited more from school choice programs,” he said.

Jonathan E. Collins, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University, says that school voucher programs may only deepen the social and economic inequalities they claim to fix, and could ultimately harm the country’s public education system.

If state education budgets begin to move toward supporting private schools through vouchers, public schools could see a decrease in state funding. This is exacerbated when universal voucher programs are passed that would provide state funds to students from wealthy families who were already paying for private school tuition. 

Rural communities may face a disproportionate amount of economic stress, as voucher money is even less likely to trickle down to rural families who lack access to private schools, Collins said in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

Another of the key demographic that school choice advocates claim vouchers will help are low-income families in the southern Black Belt region.

“Policy makers have been trying to build a multi-racial coalition around school voucher programs,” Collins said. “They are championing the idea that Black families should support vouchers as a way to create educational equality for Black youth.”

The messaging that voucher programs create a more equal, integrated education system contradicts another front of the voucher campaign: the public school culture wars.

If you want to get families to turn their backs on public schools in support of school vouchers, you’ve got to convince them that the schools have taken a turn for the worse, said Jack Schneider, professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

“You have to convince them that something is fundamentally rotten at their core and that it has happened quickly and covertly,” he said. “Otherwise you’re telling people that they’re stupid and they haven’t seen what’s happening right under their noses.”

This political technique tries to suggest that public schools prevent parents from getting involved in their child’s education. This provides rhetoric for the parents’ rights movement, who say “they want to be able to control what their children are exposed to in schools,” Collins said. “To have the right to keep their kids from being indoctrinated into critical race theory and the politics of gender.”

In reality, public schools best help prepare the next generation of political participants in American democracy by teaching students how to interact with people from different homes, with different cultural values and experiences, Collins said.

“If there’s a continued siphon of kids away from our public schools systems, which has been our best way of getting people to interact across backgrounds,” Collins said. “Then what do we have left?”

The folks who are pushing hardest for school vouchers, conservative elites, are also the ones who have the most to gain, said Schneider, who also pointed out that the top users of vouchers are families whose children were not in the public education system, and who are using these vouchers to reimburse themselves for private school tuition that they were already paying.

“The irony here is a bitter one,” he said. “So much of the rhetoric in the Republican Party of the past five to 10 years has been about anti-elitism and the ordinary, forgotten Americans … But the push against public education is chiefly rooted in market thinking and is very much about the best interests of elites who don’t understand why they have to be financially on the hook for paying for the education of other people’s children.”

The Cash Register for Politics

Advocates of school vouchers say that voucher programs provide families with more control over their child’s educational experience, that families should be afforded transparency in knowing what their child is taught and the power to choose. 

In 2019, Robert Asen, a professor in the communication arts department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, interviewed rural public school advocates in Wisconsin about the concerns they had with school voucher programs that had recently been enacted in the state.

He found that many rural advocates felt their state government wasn’t being transparent with how school voucher programs were being funded and how the programs would impact the funding their local public schools would receive. 

“People in rural communities tend to like their public schools,” Collins said. “Drumming up political support for this type of program is not a selling point if you’re a rural Republican legislator.”

That was until leaders in the Republican Party and billionaire donors started to challenge rural Republicans who defected from the party’s all-or-nothing stance on universal school vouchers.

Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall, a popular rural legislator, faced big money blowback for halting a school voucher bill in 2022.

Residents of Sulphur, which, with a population of 5,000, is the largest town in McCall’s district, received a wave of political mailers and TV ads attacking the representative. The money for this political blitz came from Club for Growth, a conservative PAC located in Washington, D.C..

Unlike the representatives from Iowa and Texas, McCall’s constituents continued to support their representative. 

“We felt like we had school choice in rural Oklahoma already,” said Matt Holder, superintendent of Sulphur Public Schools, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

The Sulphur school district already operated on a system of open enrollment that didn’t pose any financial concerns, Holder explained. That system allows students who live outside of district to transfer in. Many other districts and states across the country also offer some form of open public enrollment.

Last year, the Oklahoma legislature enacted a universal school choice program that will award tax credits to families who pay for private school tuition. 

Unlike traditional school vouchers that take money out of the pot for education in Oklahoma, this program seemed to be more palatable because the money is coming from elsewhere, Holder said. 

As an additional compromise, the state increased the education budget by more than $500 million.

“They put more money into public education funding than they have ever before,” Holder said.

But while the school tax credit program, which reduces the state’s revenue, will persist for the foreseeable future, there’s no guarantee that the state will continue to allocate unprecedented amounts of money for public education.

“It’s too soon to tell what, if any, ramifications there might be from that,” Holder said. 

Republicans in other states have been less compromising. Pro-voucher hardliners, backed by big money, have successfully replaced rural Republicans in primary races in states like Iowa and Texas.

“School privatization is really a top-down model of policy change,” said Asen, the Wisconsin professor who studied rural attitudes toward school vouchers. “These changes are driven by a small group of lobbyists and financial backers against large-scale public opinion.”

“It’s like a cash register for politics,” Collins said. “There’s big money in it. There’s big money in terms of the donors who are getting behind candidates who support it, especially in the Republican Party.”

The Persistence of Rural Resistance

While some school choice advocates say that rural residents are becoming more supportive of voucher programs, numerous rural grassroots organizations have begun advocating against such policies in light of the aggressive voucher movement in the Republican Party. 

In Wisconsin, rural advocates told Asen that they rejected the idea that education is a commodity.

 “They wanted to emphasize the important roles that public schools played in these rural towns,” Asen. “Public schools weren’t just a place where kids go to learn, they were a place where the community came together to establish a common identity and civic sensibility.”

To many rural families, education isn’t a consumer good. It’s a public good. Students aren’t just consumers. They are community members. They are citizens. They are community members.

Jess Piper is a retired rural public school teacher from Missouri who made a run for state office in 2022 as a Democrat.

After losing the general election, she decided to found Blue Missouri, an organization that seeks to increase political competition by raising money for down ballot Democrats who don’t receive party funding.

Education funding remains a top priority of Piper’s work. Missouri ranks 50th nationally in teacher pay and 49th in educational funding. 

“The state only covers 32% of any school’s budget and the rest comes from local taxes,” she said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “If you live in a rural community, that’s going to be tough.”

Part of Piper’s work involves going door to door in her community to speak with her neighbors about policy issues like school funding.

She says that supporting public schools is a bipartisan issue in rural communities, that rural Democrats and Republicans don’t always think in line with the larger party.

“I’ve never knocked on a door where someone said, ‘Gee, I wish there was a private school I could send my kid to,’” Piper said.

Piper says she’s up against a big pile of money from folks like Rex Sinquefield, Betsy DeVos, Leonard Leo, and the Herzog Foundation. 

“They have no reason. They have no data. They have nothing to prove that vouchers are better,” she said. “They only have lies, rhetoric, and a s***-ton of money.”

In March, after agreeing to increasing public education funding and teacher salaries, Missouri lawmakers passed a sprawling education bill that expands the tax-credit scholarship program to all counties in the state and increases the income cap used to determine eligibility for the program.

In rural Idaho, similar efforts have been led by Reclaim Idaho. The organization originated as a small-scale, short-term campaign to keep funding intact for a local school district in North Idaho.

But after seeing local success, the organization launched statewide, focusing on protecting public schools, public lands, and healthcare for working families. An initial success of the organization was securing a $410 million increase in state education funding.

When it comes to school vouchers, there is very little bottom-up interest for school choice in Idaho, organization co-founder Luke Mayville wrote in an email to the Daily Yonder.

“Idahoans generally believe in public education and value their local public schools, especially tiny towns and rural communities,” Mayville said. “The problem is that national special-interest groups have decided Idaho is an easy target for their agenda.”

Mayville says that vouchers would transfer wealth out of rural Idaho communities to provide “new entitlements” for affluent suburban families.

Mayville credits the success of the organizations anti-voucher efforts to a coalition of teachers, administrators, families, students, and citizens who contributed to an outpouring of phone calls, emails, and public testimony.

“Public comment and testimony has made it very clear that the school-voucher agenda is not the will of the people,” he said.

Lane Wendell Fischer wrote this article for The Daily Yonder.

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