Virginia should fully fund public education before prioritizing vouchers

January 12, 2023 12:07 am

"The proposed voucher program is a bad deal for Virginians – and public education, too," writes columnist Roger Chesley.  (Courtesy of Chesterfield County Public Schools)

Virginia is one of the richest states in the nation in median household income, often among the top ten. State legislators, however, consistently fail to meet the funding standards set by the Virginia Board of Education for students in K-12 public schools.  

We rank near the bottom in per-pupil spending for public education, at a stingy 40th among the states, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. That means localities face a huge financial burden to teach children, according to the nonprofit, left-leaning organization based in Richmond. 

So naturally, Republicans in the General Assembly want to pass voucher legislation that would deplete public education of vital state dollars and direct that money to private schools. Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears is among the biggest proponents of the diversion. 

“What we are saying as parents is, ‘No more.’ We’re not going to do the same things and expect different results,” Earle-Sears said last week, according to my Virginia Mercury colleague Nathaniel Cline.  

That sentiment would be just fine if Virginia did, at minimum, its share in fulfilling the Standards of Quality to fund education. We simply won’t know whether schools would improve until the state does a better job of paying for more school counselors, support positions and the like – as it’s supposed to.  

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, is sponsoring HB1508, allowing parents to set up savings accounts to cover educational expenses, including tuition, at private schools. The accounts would be funded with state dollars at roughly $6,600 per child, he said. (I couldn’t find out the estimated hit to state coffers.) 

“A lot of students in Virginia have fallen through the cracks,” Davis told me Wednesday, the same day the General Assembly convened for the 2023 session. “There’s such a huge need, especially in historically Black communities. The resources aren’t there to reach their full potential.” He cited the challenges in Petersburg schools as one example.  

Detractors, including many Democrats, derided the proposal as funneling money to rich families and gutting K-12 education. Davis said no Democrats have sought to be co-sponsors or publicly supported his plan. 

Low-income families would more likely benefit, Davis said, especially minority students. But as he acknowledged, no income limits are stipulated in the legislation. You can bet families that could take advantage of the program won’t all be struggling, including middle-class ones.  

Some poor families might not be able to use the proposed “Education Success Accounts” because the subsidies won’t pay enough of the costs. A big hurdle in many states is transportation; families themselves or the private schools would have to provide a way for students to get to and from school. 

Davis’ passion is clear when discussing so-called ESAs. He told me he’s visited several states in recent years to study choice initiatives. Davis, who’s carried charter school legislation previously, has also toured schools around the commonwealth.  

But the large-scale education gambit he proposes makes no sense.  

Even if some public schools are failing to educate students, the state should first provide more than the bare minimum of resources before consigning them to the trash heap. The unofficial GOP mantra of “low taxes above all else” has consequences – especially for education. 

“Unfortunately, before the last legislative session, the state of Virginia was still providing less per-student investment in public schools than in 2009 after adjusting for inflation,” said Laura Goren, director of research and education policy at the Commonwealth Institute.  

Nor are vouchers the panacea some conservatives claim they are. Any diminution of public schools should have, as a substitute, a strong track record.  

Many independent analyses of voucher programs suggest they provide only slight boosts in educational markers and test scores. Others say they are negligible or even deleterious – while also harming public schools.  

“Studies of voucher programs in several U.S. cities, the states of Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, and in Chile and India, find limited improvements at best in student achievement and school district performance from even large-scale programs,” said a 2017 Economic Policy Institute report. The institute bills itself as an independent, nonprofit think tank. 

“The lack of evidence that vouchers significantly improve student achievement … suggests that an ideological preference for education markets over equity and public accountability is what is driving the push to expand voucher programs,” the article said. Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, has been a huge proponent of school choice

The Economic Policy Institute added that voucher programs bring risks, including increased school segregation and the “loss of a common, secular educational experience.” 

Recent studies of statewide voucher programs in Louisiana, Ohio, and Indiana “have shown negative effects on student achievement for students in elementary and middle school grades,” according to a 2021 article in Kappan, a magazine that covers K-12 education.  

With vouchers, there’s also a discomfiting whiff of the private academies for white children – using public money – that opened during Virginia’s period of Massive Resistance more than a half-century ago. They were designed to prevent integration, even after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  

It’s impossible to dismiss that shameful piece of history when talking about diverting public money for education in the commonwealth.  

This is primarily a philosophical debate right now, given the divided control of the General Assembly. Republicans have a slight majority in the House of Delegates, and Democrats have the same in the Senate, so the bill probably won’t pass.  

Still, it’s hard to believe shoveling money to private schools would benefit public ones left with fewer dollars.  

The proposed voucher program is a bad deal for Virginians – and public education, too. 

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]