Private School Vouchers 2020: State Legislatures Used Once-in-a-Century Pandemic to Push Voucher Bills
This is the third in our series, Private School Vouchers: Analysis of 2020 Legislative Sessions. This annual PFPS analysis provides an overview of proposed voucher legislation nationwide and deeper dives on key states and issues. Read the first and second parts.
Unsurprisingly, in 2020, school privatization proponents used the COVID-19 health emergency as an opportunity to push for private school vouchers at all levels. But only a handful of voucher bills related to the pandemic were introduced in state legislatures last year, and even fewer were signed into law.
Some of these voucher bills used the physical closure of schools as an excuse for establishing new voucher programs or increasing eligibility or funding for existing ones. Citing the need to “provide an alternative educational option” during the pandemic, a North Carolina bill expanded eligibility for the state’s longstanding voucher program by removing the 40% cap on available voucher funds for students entering kindergarten or first grade and increasing the income eligibility threshold from 133% to 150% of the amount required to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.
The Virginia Senate considered, but declined to pass, a bill requiring any school division operating under a reduced schedule to deposit unused funds into voucher accounts for qualified students. A similar bill targeting schools unable to provide in-person instruction was introduced in the Virginia House during the 2021 legislative session but died in committee.
Companion bills were introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature in 2020 that would have directed up to $500 million of the state’s discretionary CARES Act funding—provided by the federal government in the first major COVID-19 relief legislation—for the creation of a new program providing one-time $1,000 vouchers for expenses including private school tuition. These bills also failed to move.
Other state legislation altered requirements governing voucher programs during the pandemic. In an omnibus COVID-19 response bill, the North Carolina Legislature approved provisions regarding its voucher programs that included the relaxation of restrictions on rollover voucher funds if they were unexpended due to private school closures, allowing these funds to be used for the 2020-21 school year.
The trend of exploiting the pandemic and the accompanying temporary shift to virtual education in order to justify private school voucher legislation has accelerated during states’ 2021 legislative sessions. Use the PFPS bill tracker to learn more about these bills and their status in states across the country. View these PFPS webinars for timely and useful information on fighting voucher bills in your state: “Fighting Voucher Legislation in 2021” and “State Advocacy to Fight Vouchers and Protect Public Schools.”