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Who’s Vouching for What? A Brief History of the Push for Private School Vouchers

With less than two weeks to go until the Nevada Legislature adjourns Sine Die, Governor Brian Sandoval (R) and Republican leaders are making one last push to fund ESA school vouchers. Why are they so adamant on reviving the dormant program? And how did we get here in the first place?

Last legislative session, Sandoval and a bipartisan coalition of legislators agreed to a historic revenue raising tax reform package to invest more in public education. However, there was a catch. Republican leaders also pushed through a bill to establish the ESA voucher program. Unlike the tax deal, SB 302 passed along party lines in 2015.

Why is the ESA voucher program so controversial?

For one, the who’s who of far-right special interests have pushed hard for private school vouchers for over 60 years. These include the Koch Brothers, corporate lobby powerhouse ALEC, Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and even more shadowy corporate funded “non-profit groups”.

Long before Donald Trump proclaimed school vouchers as “the great civil rights issue of our time”, these far-right corporate interests were painting vouchers as a tool working poor communities of color can use to “free their kids from failing schools”. The catch? From high school student enrollment in U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVosown home town to the Nevada ESA voucher waitlist, the numbers point to school vouchers exacerbating education discrimination, not fixing it.

So why is the “school choice movement” really pushing private school vouchers?

School vouchers amount to a redistribution of public funds into private hands.

Look at the comments on Governor Sandoval’s voucher bill (SB 506) on the Nevada Legislature website. Notice a common theme? For both proponents and opponents, it’s about where public tax dollars should go.

In 1955, market fundamentalist economist Milton Friedman penned an essay that laid the foundation of contemporary school voucher policy. In “The Role of Government in Education”, Friedman admitted that vouchers are not meant for educational equity or racial justice. Rather, he argued that “parents can choose” how much racial segregation they want in their children’s schools.

In his 1995 essay, “Public Schools: Make Them Private”, Milton Friedman further clarified that school vouchers are “a means to make a transition from a government to a market system”.

“The most feasible way to bring about such a transfer from government to private enterprise is to enact in each state a voucher system.” – Milton Friedman in 1995

In 1980, Chile implemented a school voucher program designed by Milton Friedman himself. More than half of Chilean students now attend private schools. Nearly 75% of the students still in public schools are low-income students. These are the students who are now stuck in underfunded schools. Even the private school students whose families can’t afford the high-end private schools are stuck in franchise schools that cut costs (and in turn, essential services) to maximize profits.

In the early 1990s, Sweden implemented a more regulated school voucher program that still pushed more students into private schools. The Swedish system was touted as a success by voucher advocates… Until Sweden’s international school ranking dropped significantly in the late 2000s. Not only has that downward trajectory continued in the 2010s, but Swedish Education Minister Gustav Fridolin admitted to The Guardian in 2015 that vouchers have resulted in greater inequity that places working poor students at a greater disadvantage.

“Instead of breaking up social differences and class differences in the education system, we have a system today that’s creating a wider gap between the ones that have and the ones that have not.” – Gustav Fridolin in 2015

Nonetheless, school voucher advocates have pushed to implement programs in the U.S. In 1996, Milton and Rose Friedman established their own foundation to advocate for vouchers throughout the nation. In 2016, the Friedman Foundation rebranded as EdChoice. EdChoice is one of several national organizations that have waded into Nevada’s great ESA voucher debate.

As vouchers have spread throughout the U.S., so has inequity. In Indiana, state voucher funds are increasingly going to suburban white students who have never been enrolled in public schools. In Florida, students with special needs are learning the hard way that private schools that take vouchers don’t offer special education programs in return. In Wisconsin, residents earning over $100,000 a year have taken about two-thirds of school voucher funds that were supposedly meant for working poor families while investment in public schools has been limited. And in Washington, D.C., voucher students have scored lower on standardized tests than public school students.

So what are vouchers, really? And who benefits?

Proponents claim school vouchers are meant to improve overall educational performance while ensuring historically disadvantaged students succeed. But when we look at the actual record in places that have adopted vouchers, we find a much different story. Instead, we find public funds being siphoned to a select privileged few to attend private schools that are not proven to actually do a better job than public schools.

Stay tuned, as this is the first in a series of stories digging deep into the ESA voucher saga. In the coming days, we will uncover what happens in the private schools seeking ESA voucher funds and why it’s even being considered here in Nevada.

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  1. Who’s Vouching for What? The Jury’s Out on ESA Vouchers. - Nevada Forward

    […] finally held its first hearing Monday night on SB 506, Governor Sandoval’s bill to revive the ESA voucher program. Today, we explore why Sandoval had to introduce SB 506 in the first […]

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