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Public Advocacy: Voucher Strategy

Pushing back against private school vouchers

Daniel Kaufman

Until this year, the national push for public funding of K-12 private school vouchers had experienced some slow but modest success. More than half of states and Washington, D.C., currently offer some form of vouchers.

These voucher-like policies take several forms: There are “tax credit scholarships” or “tuition tax credits, which grant corporations or individuals a tax benefit for donating money used to provide private school scholarships. There are also “education savings accounts” that provide families with public dollars to pay for private school tuition and expenses.

Yet, many of these voucher programs only apply to select groups of students, such as students with disabilities or low-income students. With much recent attention paid to charter schools, the voucher movement has arguably been overshadowed.

That is about to change. Following the 2016 elections, pro-voucher elected officials dominate the White House, Congress, and state governments. This creates a gigantic window of opportunity for voucher proponents. It’s their aim to expand the number of states and localities adopting voucher systems, the number and types of students reached, and the public education dollars diverted to private and parochial schools.

And they are not wasting any time: A voucher proposal was front and center in President Trump’s budget blueprint, and new pro-voucher bills already have popped up in state legislatures across the nation.

More than merely a policy shift, this renewed advocacy for vouchers represents a growing threat to our nation’s system of public education—a threat that will only gain momentum in the months and years ahead absent strong pushback by public school advocates.

SHIFTING THE NARRATIVE

The current pro-voucher narrative goes something like this: “Public schools are failing. Choice is good. Children and their parents—especially those from low-income and minority backgrounds—deserve more quality school options. Anyone who defends the status quo is protecting adult interests, not helping kids.”

On its surface, this narrative may sound compelling to parents, community leaders, and policymakers. Indeed, when the public is polled on whether parents and students should have more education “choice,” support for the concept tends to be overwhelming.

We also know, however, that when it comes to vouchers and polling, the public 1) rarely ranks vouchers near the top when asked to choose among a list of education reforms, and 2) strongly favors improving neighborhood public schools over the diversion of public resources to private schools. One caveat, though: The level of support depends on what specifically is being tested—for example, “tax credit scholarships” poll better than “private school vouchers”—and how the question is framed.

Through your advocacy for public education, you can help shift the national narrative from “public schools are failing and choice is the solution” to a counternarrative with broader appeal.

This requires reaching out to more than fellow school board members, superintendents, and other educators. It means talking with parents and community activists worried about children with greater needs having access to fewer resources, local business leaders concerned about protecting the critical contributions of public schools to their local workforce and economy, and many others who have a stake in public education and our country’s future.

This does not have to be a strictly left versus right issue. Many conservatives are deeply committed to high-quality public education in their local communities and don’t believe that voucher programs are a viable or desirable alternative. For example, some conservative lawmakers in rural states such as Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Texas have been pushing back on state efforts to legislate tax credit scholarships or education savings accounts.

HOW TO BUILD AN
ANTI-VOUCHER COALITION

This is what we know, for sure: Private school vouchers, tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and their relation to the public school system are highly complex and nuanced policy topics. If we want to appeal to audiences both within and outside the education community and move them to action, these issues must be distilled down into simple and compelling messaging.

Here are some potentially effective sample message themes that you can tailor to your audiences:

  • Vouchers mostly benefit students who are already in private school and can afford to pay sky-high tuition rates.
  • Private and parochial schools should not receive taxpayer money because, unlike public schools, they are not held accountable for student performance, serving students with disabilities, or how the money is spent.
  • Vouchers siphon off scarce resources from neighborhood public schools, which accept all kids including many students living in poverty, to benefit private schools. This funding is needed to improve the quality of public schools.
  • In many areas of the country, the local public school is the cornerstone of the community and the only real option for most families.
  • Do we want an education system designed for only a select few? Or a system that strives to provide access for all to a quality education?

We also know that this fight is not something that will be over and done with in a short time frame. It will require sustained vigilance over the long haul of these threats and a rapid response when they do emerge.

Moreover, mobilizing audiences quickly and effectively requires a combination of tried-and-true traditional communications tactics—in-person lobbying and testifying before the state legislature, writing state and local officials, community events, media outreach, op-eds, letters to the editor, handouts, etc.—with other strategies such as:

  • Collecting and disseminating polling data and research findings from respected national and local organizations that shows the ineffectiveness of vouchers and voucher-like policies on student achievement.
  • Gathering and sharing quotes, testimonials, videotaped stories, and examples of diverse anti-voucher voices from all segments of your community.
  • Recruiting messengers such as teachers, parents, and business leaders who can speak to the importance of their local public schools and share their concerns about vouchers directly with policymakers and the media.
  • Posting information on Facebook, sending out tweets through your personal Twitter handle, crafting and placing blog posts, and participating in Twitter chats and Facebook Live events on the issue.

For more information about private school vouchers and voucher-like programs, and a state-by-state breakdown of voucher policies and legislation, visit the research sections of the websites for the National Council of State Legislatures, www.ncsl.org, or Education Commission of the States, www.ecs.org.

NSBA’s Stand Up 4 Public Schools at www.standup4publicschools.org provides resources to help defend against anti-public school forces.


Daniel Kaufman (dan.kaufman@finnpartners.com) is a senior partner at Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners company. He served on the Prince George’s County, Maryland, school board from 2013 to 2015. 

 

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