Voucher expansion in the Midwest

The push to dismantle public education via voucher schemes that start small and then metastasize to drain public coffers isn’t just a battle happening in Illinois. It’s nationwide, and it’s accelerating. Below we look at how vouchers are growing in neighboring states.


Wisconsin and Indiana have long been cautionary privatization tales. Wisconsin’s voucher program ballooned from $700K in 1991 to $444M this school year. Indiana’s program started in 2011, and initially budget figures claimed a savings of $4M from the program, but by last year the annual cost was up to $241M. Academic achievement results from Indiana’s voucher program have been dismal. Wisconsin’s program hasn’t had a long-term study for more than a decade, but the most recent study (2010) showed no achievement benefits for voucher students. (See discussion here.)

In Iowa the Republican governor’s plan for creating a massive Education Savings Account program may finally have the votes to succeed after she helped bump off the remaining opponents to it in her own party, rural Republicans, during last year’s primary election. But the battle is a noisy one in their state capitol nonetheless with robust opposition from Democrats in both chambers, and last year’s fight appeared to push public opinion there further against vouchers

Iowa Capital Dispatch Few Iowa families will have more choices with GOP 'school choice' plan

Little Village ‘Our public schools are not failing, elected officials are failing them’: Iowans opposing voucher bill flood legislature with comments

[Update: Iowa's voucher bill did pass. It is projected to grow from $107M this year to $341M in its fourth year.]

In Missouri lawmakers are already talking about expanding their brand new voucher program, also set up like IL’s as a tax-credit scholarship mechanism, a design choice that deliberately tries to circumvent the separation of church and state with voucher fund middlemen as the conduit for distributing tax dollars to private schools.

A rare bright spot is Kentucky, where their tax credit scholarship program was ruled unconstitutional by the Kentucky Supreme Court last month.

Louisville Public Media Ky. Supreme Court rules school tax credit program unconstitutional

Public Funds Public Schools Kentucky Remains Voucher-Free as Supreme Court Strikes Down Unconstitutional Law

The unanimous ruling makes it clear that the program raises public funds which are diverted to private schools: “[T]he income tax credit raises money for nonpublic education and its characterization as a tax credit rather than an appropriation is immaterial.“ And, since Kentucky’s constitution prohibits spending funds raised for education for anything other than public schools unless it is approved by voters, the program was ruled unconstitutional. 

Michigan is another positive piece of news. It's the home state of Betsy DeVos, and she and her family had been dumping millions into a push for a massive tax credit scholarship program there. But with the control of the Michigan legislature switching from Republican to Democratic in November and a likely defeat at the polls due to the unpopularity of voucher programs, DeVos-funded groups withdrew their attempt to get a ballot initiative approved that would have created the voucher program without the need for approval from the Governor.

Detroit News Conservative groups abandon ballot bids for private school scholarship, voting laws

Chalkbeat Detroit DeVos-funded campaign for school voucher-like plan withdraws petitions in a sign of defeat

What to make of all this from our near neighbors? One, it is imperative that Illinois’ program ends as intended! Even small-ish programs can grow huge quickly. The fight here currently is to make Invest in Kids permanent. If pro-voucher groups succeed, they will then simply return to Springfield with their busloads of voucher students to push to make the program bigger. Bills trying to do both have previously been introduced in Springfield with support from both sides of the aisle (e.g. see expansion bills here and here and bill to make permanent here.) 

Two, those of us who are pro-public schools may not have billionaires bankrolling us, but we do have the facts and popular opinion on our side. Once people know about this program, they are very alarmed. As the Kentucky court case made clear, this program is taking tax revenue that should be appropriated for the public good and redirecting it for private purposes. Moreover, it is funding mostly religious institutions, and many of these schools, possibly most, engage in discrimination. (Only 15% of Invest in Kids voucher schools report serving any special education students!) 

Meanwhile, our public schools, which must serve all kids, are still short by billions of dollars of state funding. Voucher programs aren’t good public policy, and this is a fight worth having.