What’s the argument about school choice?
We believe that when many special interest groups talk about “school choice,” they are actually supporting school privatization. We believe it’s important to make this distinction, because Nebraska already has choice.
Nebraska has statewide open enrollment to our public schools, so parents can choose which school is right for their child — from a wide range of alternatives including focus programs, magnet schools, bilingual programs, and schools for students with special needs and behavioral challenges.
Or parents can choose to send their child to a private or parochial school, or to homeschool. Since these options are outside of the public school system, parents pay for those opportunities.
Proponents of charter schools and vouchers aren’t really focused on choice. They are focused on privatization. Privatization would allow (or force) taxpayer dollars to be given to private entities, many of which would not fall under current regulations or systems of accountability.
By keeping public schools public, we use our limited taxpayer funds to continue to improve the school system that has been the backbone of our great state since the beginning.
What are charter schools?
Charter schools are institutions that are publicly funded but privately run. In other words, while charter schools receive taxpayer money, they do not answer to elected school boards. Instead, they put public funds into the hands of private boards of directors, often with little or no public oversight. In states like Ohio, this has led to widespread waste, fraud, and abuse of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.
Charter schools typically require an application process — which allows them to be selective about who can and cannot attend. They can also mandate extra responsibilities from applicants (volunteer hours, financial donations), which disproportionately strain low-income and single-parent families. Both of these are just two examples of discriminatory practices that 1/5th of charter schools across the country have been found to employ. Rather than expanding options for disadvantaged kids, they exacerbate current inequalities.
Education is a right, according to the Nebraska constitution. Every student deserves access to exceptional schooling. That’s why Nebraska’s public schools have open enrollment, public funding, and fiscally conservative oversight of taxpayer dollars through elected school boards.
Opening the gates to another state charter school experiment will only take funds away from public schools that are already strapped for resources. Instead, we support expanding research-based policies like early childhood education, career education, school nutrition, and before- and after-school and summer programming, which have been shown to dramatically improve student performance and outcomes later in life.
- “A dozen problems with charter schools,” The Washington Post
- “OIG Report: Charter Schools Pose Risk to Education Department Goals,” U.S.News
- “Local View: Charter schools are wrong for Nebraska,” Lincoln Journal Star
- “Are Public Schools and Private Equity a Bad Mix?” National Education Policy Center
- “Do charter schools really help children improve?,” Boston Globe
- “School choice gutted Detroit’s public schools. The rest of the country is next.” VICE News
- “Charter School Performance in New Jersey,” National Center for Education Statistics
- “The Evaluation of Charter School Impacts: Final Report,” National Center for Education Statistics
What are vouchers?
Vouchers use taxpayer dollars to send students to private schools, hurting public school students in several ways. First, by taking tax dollars out of the state’s general fund, vouchers reduce the amount of investment available for public services like schools, health care, and infrastructure.
In many states, voucher programs require school districts to calculate what it costs “per pupil” on average to educate a student, and to make that amount of money available to parents to send their children to private school. But in reality, students cost very different amounts to educate based on their needs. Special education and English Language Learner students typically cost more to educate than their peers. Vouchers create an incentive for private schools not to accept those students, which is perfectly legal for them to do as private entities–even when they are receiving taxpayer dollars from public schools that have a duty to educate all students.
Vouchers reduce resources for public schools without proportionately reducing their costs. If a handful of students from multiple grades leave their public school to attend a private institution, that public school’s overhead costs change very little – the building maintenance, teacher and staff salaries, transportation costs, and federally mandated programs like English language learning and special education might all remain constant. Yet the school would receive fewer funds to meet those needs because the funding followed the students elsewhere.
This is not a fiscally conservative path. In fact, it creates a parallel state-funded education system that would cost taxpayers an additional $23 million a year—maybe more—at a time when the state is facing a billion-dollar budget shortfall, schools are already squeezed for funding, and some policymakers are pursuing further income tax cuts. To say the least, vouchers don’t make fiscal sense.
But the problems don’t end there. Extensive research shows vouchers do not support student educational performance (see the Resources section below). One bill introduced in Nebraska that resembled laws passed in other states would make just 75% of a voucher student’s per-student average costs available for their education; the other 25% would go to nominal property tax relief. This means vouchers would under-resource the exact students they purport to help – giving them just 75% of what an average public school student would receive.
Vouchers also harm the performance of non-voucher students by taking away funds from public schools. As their name suggests, schools labeled as “needs improvement” by the Department of Education are those that most need resources to make necessary changes to best serve every student. “Needs improvement” schools are most likely to exist in high-poverty areas where students are more likely to need additional services—from school nutrition programs to mental and behavioral health support.
For example, Omaha Public Schools has put in place aggressive school improvement plans that have made major strides in turning around its lowest-performing schools in the last several years; vouchers could put these advances in jeopardy by stripping away the funding needed to continue those efforts.
Finally, vouchers put public dollars into the hands of private institutions whose only responsibility is to their private boards of directors, not to taxpayers. Taking public dollars out of public oversight opens the door to discrimination and abuse.
Because they are defined as “private,” voucher schools are not bound by the same rules: they can sidestep basic constitutional protections such as freedom of speech. They do not have to provide second-language or special-education services. They can suspend or expel students without legal due process. They can ignore state requirements for open meetings and records. They can discriminate against students on grounds of sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, or marital or parental status. All this, and the state would be footing the bill.
This is more than just a bad idea in theory – public spending without public accountability has proven disastrous in other states. In Wisconsin, which implemented the nation’s first voucher program in 1990, what began as a small experimental program in Milwaukee quickly grew to represent a major share of the state’s education system: some 33,000 students in 212 schools receive publicly funded vouchers. And for 22 of those schools, every single one of their students receives a publicly funded voucher – yet they are still considered “private.”
This has led to systemic abuse of funds. Voucher schools were incentivized to accept students who would cost the least to educate, concentrating the most vulnerable students in public schools with diminishing resources. In the words of reporter Barbara Milner, who has covered Wisconsin’s vouchers system for 25 years, “Wisconsin has sunk so deep into this unaccountable world that our voucher program not only turns a blind eye toward discrimination in voucher schools, it forces the public to pay for such discrimination.” If we introduce vouchers to Nebraska, we run the risk of repeating this mistake.
Vouchers put our most vulnerable students at risk by defunding their public schools and removing anti-discrimination protections.
Stand For Schools strongly supports the range of school choice options that exist in Nebraska. In addition to statewide open enrollment, which allows any student to attend any school that has space available, families can choose private and parochial schools or homeschooling. However, we believe those private options should be privately funded. When states spend limited taxpayer dollars on private schools rather than on public schools, we all lose. Public funds should be reserved for public schools.
- “Vouchers do not improve student achievement,” by Stanford University
- “What Milwaukee’s Voucher Program Can Teach Modern Education Reformers,” by Wisconsin Public Radio
- “Free to Choose: Can School Choice Reduce Student Achievement?” study by the National Bureau of Economic Research
- “If you care about our public schools and our democracy, beware of Betsy DeVos and her vouchers,” Op-Ed by LA Times
- “On negative effects of vouchers,” by Brookings
What are education tax credits?
Education tax credits reduce taxes on spending toward private schools, while hurting public schools.
One bill proposed in Nebraska would provide a dollar-for-dollar credit for donors to a private school scholarship fund. Another proposal would create Education Savings Accounts where Nebraskans could save a certain amount per year, per student, tax-free to use toward private school tuition or public school supplementals (extracurricular activities, school trips, etc.).
Both proposals take funding away from public schools. The dollar-for-dollar credit would deplete the state’s general fund by up to $10 million the first year, possibly growing thereafter. And while it’s impossible to know how many people would participate in the Education Savings Accounts, the state estimates at least $10-12 million per year in costs. At a time when the state faces a $1.1 billion shortfall, we cannot afford to further cut the state’s budget for schools, healthcare, infrastructure, and other services.
Second, this move will raise property taxes. With less state funding available for schools and other services, cities and counties will be forced to either raise their property taxes to make up the difference, or cut programs like sports, extracurriculars, and AP classes.
Third, tax credits benefit the wealthy. People can already claim a charitable giving tax deduction on donations they make to charitable organizations, including churches and private and parochial schools.
But the proposed tax credit in Nebraska would turn those donations into a money-making opportunity: donors would receive a dollar-for-dollar credit from the state on their donation AND be able to claim a federal charitable giving deduction.
States like South Carolina and Georgia already have these kinds of tax credits on the books, and they are advertised to donors as a way to make a quick buck. Consequently, this credit is little more than a way for the rich to get richer – at the expense of $10 million in public services.
Similarly, Education Savings Accounts only help families affluent enough to set aside up to $2,000 dollars a year. Low-income families with little to no disposable income, or who pay no income taxes to begin with, could not benefit from the program. Tax credits benefit the wealthy, while diverting funds away from public schools and from our most vulnerable students.
Stand For Schools supports private schools. In Nebraska, parents can choose to send their child to private school, homeschool, or a wide range of public school options through statewide open enrollment. However, we believe private schools should be privately funded. Taxpayer dollars for education should stay squarely within the fiscally conservative oversight of elected school boards.
“Public Loss, Private Gain: How School Voucher Tax Shelters Undermine Public Education,” by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy
“In Some States, Donating to Private Schools Can Earn You a Profit,” by the New York Times
“The Promise and Peril of School Vouchers,” by NPR