by John F. Seymour, a long-time resident of Arlington, Virginia
For years now, public education in the Commonwealth has been under siege by Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly. Conservative legislators enchanted by economist Milton Friedman’s vision of an unfettered free market, and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s championship of religious education, have introduced bills to privatize education in the Commonwealth. Variously described as measures intended to promote “school choice,” the bills would divert state tax dollars from public schools and direct them to parents, who could use the funds to defer educational expenses at private schools in Virginia. Fortunately for the survival of public education in the Commonwealth, Governors McAuliffe and Northam vetoed such bills in years past, warning that the proposals would deprive public schools of critically-needed funds and also run afoul of the Commonwealth’s Constitution, which forbids state funding of religious schools.
This session, Republicans again have sponsored a number of bills to privatize public education in furtherance of school choice. The most prominent of these — House Bill 1508 — would revive education savings accounts, now renamed “Education Success Accounts.” Under the proposed legislation, eligible parents could receive a portion of the amount ordinarily appropriated by the Commonwealth to a public school to educate that student. Parents could use the funds to pay for a wide range of educational services, including tuition, fees, and textbooks at a private elementary or secondary school in Virginia. On February 1, the bill was approved and reported out of a House Education Sub-Committee (on a party line vote).
Republicans have expressed their hope that — this year — they will prevail. When Governor Youngkin won the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2021, his victory was commonly seen as a referendum on how the Commonwealth’s schools operated during the pandemic, following widespread public discontent with mask mandates and virtual schooling, together with manufactured controversies about critical race theory and transgender rights. Exploiting public frustrations, Governor Youngkin made “school choice” a principal policy objective. Almost exactly a year ago, he proclaimed “School Choice Week” within the Commonwealth, and committed to “empower parents to make choices about the educational needs of their children.”
Republican prospects for success this year certainly have been helped by Youngkin’s victory because Republicans no longer face a veto threat from a Democratic governor. In addition, the constitutional obstacle highlighted by McAuliffe and Northam in their veto messages of years past has been weakened considerably. A conservative super-majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a number of decisions that have, particularly in the past several years, eviscerated Thomas Jefferson’s “wall between Church and State” embodied in the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court’s most recent “Religious Liberty” decision approved the expenditure of public tax dollars to fund religious education programs even in the face of a State Constitution that flatly prohibited it. Anticipating and perhaps even welcoming a constitutional challenge to the program, the bill even expressly grants to parents the right to intervene in any such lawsuit.
Today, supporters of public education in Virginia must rely on the Virginia Senate, which enjoys a very narrow (22-18) Democratic majority. Democrats have traditionally been staunch supporters of public education while opposing efforts of Republicans to privatize it through vouchers, education savings accounts, for-profit charter schools, and similar measures This year too, bills promoting educational savings accounts have been introduced by Senate Republicans but have been received skeptically by their Democratic colleagues. In recent weeks, the various “school choice” bills pending in the Senate were not recommended by a Senate’s Education subcommittee and were passed by indefinitely by the full Senate Education Committee (on party line votes). It is unclear whether the House bills, once passed by the full House, will fare any better when considered by the Senate.
Senate Democrats have a host of reasons to oppose the legislation — the absence of accreditation standards and curriculum guidelines for private schools, high program administration and account auditing costs, exclusive school admission practices, which can exclude LGBTQ students and those with disabilities, among others. But as a matter of simple fiscal fairness, Senate Democrats are clearly correct to oppose the legislation. The Virginia Board of Education has warned that inflation-adjusted state direct aid for public schools has fallen by 3.4% since 2009. Yet the diversion of state funding from already under-funded public schools will intensify the considerable financial stress endured by local schools still emerging from the pandemic. Rural schools or schools in low-income communities, in particular, already struggle to raise sufficient revenues to meet the needs of their students because their local share of per pupil spending is paid for out of property taxes. Because their property tax receipts are comparatively modest, such schools rely disproportionately on state funding. But the Fiscal Impact Statement accompanying House Bill 1508 cautioned that “there will be large variances in the state share amount transferred into savings accounts across school divisions based on each locality’s index of ability to pay.” The Department of Education estimated a very large range State-wide—from $3,251 to $9,078. The transfers required by Education Savings Accounts bear no relation to school or community needs and, indeed, subvert the goals sought to be achieved by the Commonwealth’s complicated school funding formula. They remove state funds from public schools that need them the most.
For wealthy communities like Arlington or Fairfax Counties, or the City of Falls Church, the loss of $3,251 in state funds per pupil would be painful, though supportable, depending on the number of students who exit the public school system. For less affluent communities, the loss of more than $9,000 in state support per pupil would surely be devastating, and could result in loss of teachers, fewer educational opportunities such as advanced placement classes, and even school closings. It is, even disciples of Milton Friedman might agree, quite simple economics. Without the equitable funding that choice precludes, local public schools would need to cut services and quality to pay the bills, or go out of business entirely.