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Parents like private school vouchers so much that demand is exceeding budgets

Aaron Galaz and his son pose for a photo on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023 in Phoenix. Aaron Galaz said his son is enrolled in a program that uses taxpayer funds to pay for private-school tuition in part so his son could be challenged more in class. At least four states that have made most children eligible for taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools are seeing more families using the programs than planned. That could cost taxpayers, but it's early to know the exact budget implications.
Rick Scuteri
/
AP
Aaron Galaz and his son pose for a photo on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023 in Phoenix. Aaron Galaz said his son is enrolled in a program that uses taxpayer funds to pay for private-school tuition in part so his son could be challenged more in class. At least four states that have made most children eligible for taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools are seeing more families using the programs than planned. That could cost taxpayers, but it's early to know the exact budget implications.

In some states, higher-income families can now use taxpayer money to cover private school tuition -- and more people than projected are taking the offer, which might force scrambles to shore up state budgets.

It's especially an issue in states like Arizona and Iowa, where at least some families whose children were already in private school can now take advantage of public funding.

"It busts the budget because it's taking on as a public expense what's previously been a private cost," said Josh Cowen, an education policy professor at Michigan State University.

Advocates for school choice pitch vouchers as a way to give students in low-performing schools a way out – and, increasingly, to give parents control over what their children are taught.

Programs funded through vouchers, tax credits or scholarships have been around since the 1990s and are now available in the majority of states. Whether students who change schools with the use of taxpayer money achieve better educational outcomes is in dispute.

Initially, the programs were designed for lower-income students, but that's changing. Since last year, nine states have adopted programs that are phasing out, eliminating or significantly raising income limits.

Four of them — Arizona, Florida, Iowa and Ohio — have reported numbers with more approved applications than expected. The states might need to come up with more money for their programs as a result.

In the remaining five, it's too soon to tell the effect. Indiana has not released its data; Oklahoma's system system caps total spending, Arkansas and West Virginia's are being phased in gradually, and Utah's does not start until next year.

Even in the states with enrollment over projections, it's early enough in the school year that the situation is still rife with unknowns, including how many of the families approved for scholarships will use them, how much that will cost, and what lawmakers will propose to do about it.

Voucher supporters say demand exceeding expectations is not a problem.

"It's exciting," said Ryan Cantrell, director of government affairs at American Federation for Children, which pushes for the programs. "I think that shows that parents want this option, that lawmakers are responding to something that families want."

Aaron Galaz said he was concerned when his son was in a southern Arizona public school previously that he was not being challenged enough academically and troubled by lessons on gender identity. So when he moved to the Phoenix area last year, he found the state's Empowerment Scholarship Account was a way to get him into a Catholic school the family may not have been able to afford otherwise.

"I work and I pay all those taxes the same as everyone else," he said. "We as parents can have a choice as to where those funds go."

It's a similar experience for Heather Stessman of Waterloo, Iowa. She said her two older sons, now in 7th and 8th grade, had a supportive community in elementary school. But in middle school, they witnessed bullying and fights daily, and her son with adaptive learning needs was not getting what he needed.

Her state has a new education savings account program — which is paying for students from families of any income to switch from public to private school and for many already in private school to remain there. Stessman said that allowed her and her husband to get their middle schoolers and kindergartener into Catholic school this year. They plan to enroll their 3-year-old, when the time comes.

"I want every kid, no matter where they go, to be able to have a good experience and to feel safe and to get a good learning education," she said.

Opponents of the programs are bracing for lawmakers to attempt to make up for the higher costs by further cutting public school funding, even though lawmakers have not publicly threatened to do so.

"It's extremely frustrating because cuts are inevitably going to happen," said Beth Lewis, a former teacher who serves as executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, which supports public schools and opposes vouchers.

In Arizona, nearly 69,000 scholarships had been awarded by Oct. 14 — a little more more than lawmakers projected for the full school year. Applications have continued rolling in.

The office of Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat who opposes the program, has projected the number of students enrolled in the program signed into law by her Republican predecessor could hit nearly 9% of the state's students and cost about 50% more than the Republican-controlled Legislature planned for.

In an Oct. 11 report, the legislature's budget staff said it does not yet have a clearer picture of the taxpayer cost.

But political leaders are still sparring over the program. Hobbs labelled the vouchers "unaccountable and unsustainable," noting homeschool parents are being reimbursed for expenses including ski passes and pianos. She called on GOP officials to make changes.

State House Speaker Ben Toma, a Republican, said the state's education budget is on pace to have a $77 million year-end budget surplus that could be used to cover overruns.

"Arizona will continue to responsibly fund students, not systems," Toma said.

In Republican-controlled Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is pushing in a current special legislative session to bring a scholarship to a state that does not have any version of vouchers now. The latest version of the proposal would cap spending. The plans are in doubt because of opposition from Democrats and some Republicans who live in rural areas where private schools are scarce and public schools are some of the most important institutions.

In Ohio, families of all incomes are eligible for scholarships, but those with the highest incomes cannot get the maximum amount. The state so far has received nearly 85,000 applications for the funds. Applications are still rolling in, but not everyone who is approved will end up using the benefits. Still, a Columbus Dispatch analysis found the $398 million budget for the expanded grants was likely exceeded in September.

Ohio State Senate President Matt Huffman, a Republican and supporter of the vouchers, dismissed any concern about the state being able to cover the expense, which amounts to under 1% of the state's total budget.

"There's plenty of money there to pay for these," he said.

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