Private School Vouchers: Analysis of 2019 State Legislative Sessions
For a larger version and a text description of this map with a list of the states in each category, click here.
In anticipation of states’ 2020 legislative sessions, this is the first in a series about the fate of private school voucher proposals during 2019 sessions.
Despite the continued promotion of school privatization by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, as well as support from a number of governors, legislatures, and well-funded advocacy organizations across the country, only two states enacted new private school voucher programs during their 2019 legislative sessions. Although some states expanded existing voucher programs, most passed no voucher legislation at all, and the majority of those that did made small-scale changes.
2019 Legislative Session Highlights:
- Bipartisan majorities in Georgia, Kentucky, and West Virginia rejected voucher proposals supported by those states’ newly elected governors.
- Although 22 states have full Republican control, only Florida and Tennessee were able to pass legislation creating new voucher programs in votes largely along party lines.
- In Nevada, just a few years after the nation’s most expansive Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher law was passed, a new governor signed a bill repealing the program, which had never been implemented.
2019 Legislative Session Lowlights:
- Tennessee passed a new private school voucher program, though it is limited to two counties.
- Florida added yet another voucher program to the state’s existing voucher system.
- Other states increased funding for their previously enacted programs, including Indiana and Iowa.
Diverting public money to private education starves public schools of vital resources and does not lead to improved academic outcomes. For information about various types of private school voucher programs, visit this web page. The PFPS website also highlights a wide range of research showing that private school voucher programs are an ineffective and harmful use of public funds.
For the second consecutive legislative session, rural Republican lawmakers teamed with Democrats in a bipartisan effort to defeat legislation that would have created new school voucher programs. Proposals for a tax credit voucher and a traditional voucher were defeated. Although eli-gibility for the state’s existing ESA vouchers was modestly expanded, a bill passed requiring a biennial study that will provide lawmakers with important information to analyze how public funds are being spent in that program.
Months after voters overwhelmingly rejected the 2017 expansion of the state’s ESA voucher program, legislators introduced a number of bills to again expand the program. Two of these bills passed out of relevant committees but were not taken up by the House or Senate. The remaining expansion bills did not advance, and a bill that slows the growth of tax credit vouchers passed into law.
Governor Ron DeSantis (R) signed Florida’s latest private school voucher plan, the “Family Empowerment Scholarship Program,” into law. This program will divert an estimated $130 million to private schools over the authorized period and will make vouchers available to middle class families earning up to $80,000 a year.
Despite a new Republican governor who supports private school vouchers, voucher legislation failed in the State Senate. Six of the 13 Republican senators who represent rural areas of the state voted against the bill.
Governor Eric Holcomb (R) signed legislation to increase funding for Indiana’s existing tax credit voucher program by almost 15% over the next two years. The legislation also increases the voucher amount for eligible families.
Governor Kim Reynolds (R) signed legislation to increase the cap for Iowa’s existing tax credit voucher program by $2 million over the next two years. A bill to establish an ESA voucher was not considered by the full legislature.
Mobilization at the state capitol by educators standing up for public schools and several days of school sickout closures led to the defeat of legislation to create a tax credit voucher program. The Republican majority did not bring the bill up for a vote.
In Louisiana, a bill creating a “reading voucher” for public school students to use for private tutoring and other private uses passed the House but did not make it out of the Senate Finance Committee.
A bill to expand the state’s limited ESA voucher program was not voted on in the Republican-led House Education Committee. However, as the session was ending, the Lieutenant Governor included $2 million in new ESA funding in a bill to fund state construction projects.
Bills to create a tax-credit-funded ESA voucher program were not acted upon before the legislative deadline.
Governor Steve Sisolak (D) signed a bill formally repealing the state’s ESA voucher program first passed in 2015, and subsequently struck down by the Nevada Supreme Court. Additionally, a number of bills to create ESA vouchers for students deemed “victims of bullying” failed to advance in the legislature.
A bill that would have authorized a “school choice” study, including of ESA vouchers, passed in the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate.
Governor Tom Wolf (D) vetoed a major expansion of the state’s tax credit voucher program passed by the Republican-led legislature. The bill would have nearly doubled the amount that could be diverted to the program, included automatic annual expansions, and significantly raised the income limit for participating families.
Two bills were introduced in the legislature to establish an ESA voucher for students with disa-bilities. Both were referred to their chamber’s education committee, with no action taken by the legislature.
Governor Bill Lee (R) signed a law to establish an ESA voucher program. Concessions were made to rural Republican legislators in order to pass the bill, including limiting the program to the state’s two largest school districts and capping it at 15,000 students per year.
State leadership, including Republican legislators and the governor, did not include vouchers among their education priorities in 2019. In response to electoral losses in the suburbs and a lack of support for vouchers, legislative leaders emphasized improving the state’s public school fi-nancing system instead.
After a nine-day teachers’ strike in 2018, educators went on strike again, closing all but one of the state’s 55 county public school districts, to protest bills to allow charter schools and to create an ESA voucher program. The voucher bill did not pass during the regular session. Vouchers were again considered, but the program did not pass, during a special session on education legislation.
Many thanks to Jason Unger for compiling the research and drafting this series on 2019 legislative sessions.