News Release

“School Choice” Legislation is Reshaping the U.S.


    Berkshire is a journalist and a lecturer in education journalism and education studies at Yale University. 

Berkshire told the Institute for Public Accuracy: The number of states that are enacting “school choice” legislation is “going up fast. Last year, 17 states set up new programs or expanded existing ones, and eight of those states adopted universal programs. Other states are now in the debating stage, so we’re going to be looking at a dozen states by the end of this year. Only Idaho has succeeded in stopping [this legislation]. Once [the legislation] is on the docket, it gets pushed through.”

One important set of bills – moving state to state – outlines expansive programs called Education Savings Accounts. “Vouchers are historically really unpopular; people don’t like the idea of using taxpayer money to fund religious schools. So they’ve come up with a new name for it. These bills are now much more expansive. They’re a world away from the programs we saw emerge in the nineties, which were for low-income and minority students. [By contrast] these are universal programs. Any family, no matter how wealthy, can have their tuition paid for by the state. That isn’t limited to private school tuition. You can use the money in your education savings account for any education-related expense. Say you decided you wanted to take your kids to Sea World––that would be an education-related expense… The idea is that you should be able to purchase anything and have it qualify as an education expense.”

These bills “help wealthy families, because they remove all of the income eligibility rules that were [included in school choice] programs in the past. The original voucher programs in places like Milwaukee or Cleveland were strictly limited to poor kids and minority kids who were attending struggling urban schools. Now those limits have been removed. If you’re a wealthy family in a state like New Hampshire or Iowa or West Virginia, suddenly the state is picking up the tab for your private school tuition. That is why these programs have ended up being so expensive. It’s not because kids are leaving public schools and going to private religious schools. It’s because suddenly the state is picking up your tuition. What I find so concerning is that because these programs are so expensive, they quickly blow a hole in state budgets. You have handed money to your wealthiest families. You suddenly have this lobby group with power and influence, and they will do whatever they can to hold onto that. 

“To the extent that this movement is able to get sweeping legislation enacted, they are having a lot of success. But none of [these] places have let their citizens vote on whether they want these programs. [In some states,] they’ve kept people from testifying, because [these programs] remain really unpopular in rural areas… and are going to end up paying the price for the fact that states are redirecting funding to private religious schools. Historically, rural areas have been disproportionately affected. 

“Republicans have made this a litmus test, along the lines of abortion. If you’re a rural legislator, you have to buck your own constituents or you’re going to be primaried by someone who is backed by school choice money.”

These groups are “single-issue,” Berkshire said, in the sense that they care most about this issue, “but multi-issue because they understand that the culture wars present them with the best opportunity they have ever had to expand school choice. They ally with anti-trans folks; the next phase is anti-immigrant. We have a Supreme Court case that says that undocumented kids have to be able to go to school. [The Heritage Foundation] is out with a new policy statement that says they want to charge [undocumented students]. The school choice people rally behind that. Anything having to do with immigration right now is so polarizing and partisan. That works in their favor. Your rural lawmakers may not like school choice, but they’re really worked up about the border.”

Berkshire argues that media coverage, especially by journalists who live in blue states, does not reflect how “rapidly and radically [this issue] is reshaping the rest of the country. That’s a big deal. Because the free market jargon is the water we swim in and the air we breathe, it’s hard for them to discern how radical this stuff is… [that this is] the same policy that people were excited about in the South after Brown v. Board, because it was a way to get out from under the Constitution––and gee, they’re doing the same thing today. Why is this the single top issue of so many billionaires?”