Mene Ukueberuwa joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss the rise of school vouchers, education savings accounts, and other school-choice programs across the country.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is an old friend of the magazine, former associate editor here, Mene Ukueberuwa. He’s now an editorial board member at the Wall Street Journal, where he weighs in on American politics, public opinion, economic regulations, and the topic of today’s discussion, education policy. He’s written for a number of leading publications, including National Review, The New Republic, New Criterion, and for City Journal. So, today, we’re going to discuss the school-choice movement, the state of the school-choice movement, which has been, as we’ve reported in our pages, making great strides across the country. So, Mene, good to talk with you.

Mene Ukueberuwa: Yeah. It’s good to talk with you as well, Brian.

Brian Anderson: So, really over the past year or so, maybe a little longer, a number of states have introduced pretty wide-ranging school-choice programs, which provide families with different kinds of arrangements with funds to pursue their preferred form of education outside, in some cases, the public school system. So, last July, Arizona became the very first state to pass legislation creating a universal school choice program. And then I think Utah, Iowa, Arkansas, Florida, maybe one or two other states, have followed suit. So, I wonder, how does a universal school choice program work, and are there big differences between these states’ different models?

Mene Ukueberuwa: Well, first of all, I’m glad that you narrowed the window for the school choice movement to the past year or so, because I think a lot of people who follow education policy or even just parents who follow the state of affairs at their schools and the schools of people we know, would be surprised to understand just how much the landscape has changed within the past year. The idea of school voucher programs is something that has existed for decades, really. The first school voucher program was in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin in the early ‘90s. And this is something that education reformers have proposed for a long time as a way of affording parents more choice with where to send their children to schools, and particularly giving students the opportunity to escape low-performing schools. But really, it existed mostly within the realm of education policy wonks for a long time.

A lot of Republican governors and mayors embraced the idea of voucher programs, but the political will really wasn’t there until the past couple of years. But since 2022, as you mentioned, we’ve had several states pass universal school choice programs that actually allow all students in their states to pursue potentially a private education outside of the traditional public school system. And so, that’s a really tremendous change. The way these programs typically work is that some amount of the per-pupil public funding that generally would be paid by taxpayers and spent in local school districts, is then attached to the child. So, that if the parents decide they want to send that child to a local private school instead, that money will be partially subtracted from the funding that would go to that student’s public school, and is able to follow them to their new private school of their choice.

There are two main methods of actually paying these private schools. One is through direct scholarship programs. So, that’s how it works in Florida. The state provides funding to the statewide scholarship programs. And they pay a portion of the tuition on behalf of the students who have transferred there. And the other is called education savings accounts. So, in this case, the state deposits that funding in an account which is administered by the parents, and they’re able to then directly pay tuition on behalf of their child. And also, the overflow money can be used for other educational expenses, like materials, and transportation, and things like that. So, the basic principle is the same in all of the states that you mentioned, but the function, the structure of some of these programs does vary a bit.

Brian Anderson: What kind of demand are the programs seeing so far?

Mene Ukueberuwa: Well, demand has been incredibly high. And that’s part of the reason why you saw this breakthrough within the past year or so. Public school enrollment was already decreasing from 2020 to 2022. And of course, it won’t surprise anyone that that’s mostly because of the school closures that took place during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020. So, studies have shown that in 100 of the largest school districts in the country, 85 percent of them had been seeing declining enrollments. So, parents were already looking for alternatives to traditional public schools, in part because of underperformance and in part because it took them so long to reopen. And so, that meant that there was already a very high demand for private schools. In the states that have enabled universal school choice, you have seen enrollment grow steadily year on year.

So, Florida was one of the first programs to make vouchers available to a very wide proportion of students. It was only universal as of this year. But even before that, they were offering scholarships to basically all students who come from families earning less than 300 percent of the poverty line in the state. And in Florida, as of today, about 13 percent of all students are enrolled in private schools. And that’s an increase of about 30 percent from the previous figure, dating back to between five and 10 years ago. So, you’ve seen very rapid growth in private school enrollment, and quite a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that students in Florida now are able to access about $8,700 per student to go towards private school tuition.

Arizona also has expanded its tuition program through state funds and has seen enrollment for the 2022 school year is about 50 percent higher than what they projected it to be. And so, in the states that have moved within the past year to expand universal school choice, you’re seeing a lot of demand from parents. And people really are seizing the opportunity to seek a private education for their students when possible.

Brian Anderson: You mentioned, Mene, that a lot of parents were very dissatisfied with the way schools remained basically remote through much of the pandemic. I wonder also that the parents got to see what kind of instruction was being offered remotely. Maybe they became a little more aware of some of the curriculum issues that have leapt to the forefront of the educational debate right now. So, I wonder if that played a role, that some parents were just looking at the radical pedagogies in the classroom and said enough with that, or was it really more just the question of the closure of the schools?

Mene Ukueberuwa: Yeah, I think you raise a good point. There were so many anecdotes in those early months of the school closures and millions of students learning virtually with their parents able to watch over their shoulder on Zoom. And there were many, many pieces written about parents realizing that in many cases their students were being taught very poorly, that the teachers did not really seem to have a lot of seriousness and a lot of expertise. But also, were teaching politics in the classroom, and in many cases, progressive politics that don’t jive with the worldview that a lot of parents hold and that they want to pass on to their children. And so, declining public school enrollment is not merely a question of their performance on standardized tests. It’s not merely a question of them remaining closed for months, but it’s also the values that parents want to pass on to their children.

And in, again, a state like Florida, you do see that about 50 percent of the private schools that operate in the state do have a religious mission, tend to have more traditional values. And it’s no surprise that a lot of parents who see the world that way would prefer to have their students learn in that environment and all the more so when they become more familiar what’s being taught in the public schools. And I got to witness this firsthand. In September of last year, I went to Florida to do a profile of Governor Ron DeSantis. And I saw him speak at a rally in Boca Raton, Florida, which was held at a Jewish day school.

And the gymnasium of the school was packed with about 1,000 parents, students, mostly locals. And Governor DeSantis spoke about the scholarship program and how it had expanded. And it was incredible to see how enthusiastic these parents were, again, not just to have the opportunity to use their taxpayer dollars to give their kids a quality education, but to give their kids an education that is going to strengthen them in their faith and give them an opportunity to increase their ties with others in that local Jewish community. And so, as universal school choice expands, that story is repeating at a variety of different religious and non-religious schools around the country. Parents get a better opportunity to better connect their children’s education with their values.

Brian Anderson: Now, by enabling money to follow students, these universal school choice programs, this is a pretty major shift in how we’re funding education in the country. The longstanding criticism of school choice is that it diverts resources from the public education system. But the proponents of school choice say, well, actually this will force the educational system to become a little more competitive and focus on quality. So, I wonder, is there a merit in critics’ concerns about this? And conversely, is there any evidence to support the claim that school choice programs are indeed spurring innovation within the public school system?

Mene Ukueberuwa: Well, the concern that you raised is really the main reason why it took so long for voucher programs to be enacted into law, even in conservative states that had governors that supported the idea of school choice. A lot of people believed that if the funding was attached to students and you had more students leaving traditional public schools and attending private ones, then that would essentially lead to a collapse of the traditional public schools as they lose funding. And the students who have parents who are less enterprising, less willing to seek out a private education for them would be subjected to these ever-declining schools. And the educational problems we see, especially in poor areas, would actually get worse.

And so, I would say the states that have enacted these school-choice programs have tried to find ways to compensate for the declining funding at traditional public schools. So, generally, they will allow the majority of per-pupil funding to follow students who leave to attend private schools, but they will also increase teacher pay at traditional public schools to make it easier for them to recruit and retain teachers. And they’ll also find ways to substitute additional state funding for certain programs at those schools to make sure that they’re not caught in a trap of ever-declining funds. So, that’s been part of the solution, to essentially impose a Solomonic compromise by making sure that the traditional public schools remain well funded despite the fact that they’re losing some of their money.

But you are right about the competitive effect of the voucher programs. This is actually seen as an upside by the strongest proponents, including myself, the idea that these traditional public schools are going to have to compete for their students. They know that students are merely trapped there, merely because of the geographic area in which they live. And so, it gives them an incentive to improve the quality of the education that they offer. I’d say that it’s a little bit too early to see whether that effect is taking place. The traditional public schools have not necessarily declined nor advanced, and these programs are very new. And so, it’s difficult to judge whether the changes will take place.

I would say it would be very difficult for a lot of these schools to adapt, given how much of their curriculum is standardized and the influence especially of the teachers’ unions in how education is carried out in these traditional public schools. I think that it will be difficult for them to adapt, but I would say it’s a little bit too early to tell. And so, we might see the effects of the competitive pressures a couple years down the line once these school-choice programs have had a little bit more time and have allowed more students to potentially seek out other options.

Brian Anderson: Now, beyond the universal choice programs in the states that I mentioned at the outset, dozens of states are now considering other forms of school-choice legislation. Some would introduce or expand eligibility for vouchers. Others would establish education savings accounts, ESAs, as they’re called. I wonder, there is an enormous amount of opposition to these innovations from teachers’ unions. There are budgetary constraints. And in some states, the voters and legislators disapprove of these programs. So, I wonder, just broadly speaking, what are the main political and legislative hurdles to implementing school-choice even more widely across the country? And how can parents and pro-school choice advocates and lawmakers overcome them?

Mene Ukueberuwa: Again, the school-choice programs that we see being implemented at the state level are almost universally being done by Republican governors. And we’ve seen that a lot of these governors have had to contend with opposition within their own parties. So, one of the areas of opposition is often from rural legislators. So, this will be Republican state legislators who come from the less populous districts far away from the major cities. And some of these legislators tend to be heavily in favor of the traditional public school system. Their sense is that their schools work just fine. They have a fairly close relationship with the school board members in their areas. And they’re a little bit shy about doing things that might upset the formula for funding these public schools, because they don’t believe that they have the same problem with chronically underperforming schools as a lot of their peers in the cities.

And this was true in Iowa, which is one of the states that did manage to pass universal school choice. It’s been true in Texas, which has been playing around with different ways to expand school choice, but still hasn’t managed to do it in a major way. And the ways that the governors in these states who are in favor of school choice have managed to push it through their legislators, is by going directly to parents and making it an issue. You saw, for example, Kim Reynolds, the governor of Iowa, actually was willing to recruit primary challengers for state legislators in her own party who opposed school choice. And I think she knew that over the past couple years, the issue had become such a priority for voters in her state, that she was willing to stake political capital on it and actually challenge members of her own party.

She was willing to get members elected in those districts who were in favor of her reform, and they passed it very quickly and she was able to sign it into law. And you are seeing more governors, including Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas, who are willing to challenge opponents of school choice within their own parties. But we have seen that in the states where it has passed, it has actually been quite sticky. You have seen a lot of Democrats try to chip away at the expansion of these school-choice programs and have failed to do so. So, one example of that is Katie Hobbs, the governor of Arizona, who was inaugurated in January. She campaigned on saying, “We need to focus on shoring up traditional public schools. And I would like to roll back some of the expansion that Governor Doug Ducey had done to make school choice available to all students in that state.”

But she’s been unable to do so, again, and I think that’s because members of the state legislature in Arizona have seen how popular the program has been. As I said, the enrollment has overshot projections by about 50 percent. And so, as long as it remains a popular cause among voters, it’s going to be very difficult for Democrats who are supported by the teachers’ unions and who campaign on rolling it back to do so. Because there’s too much demand and too many parents have already reoriented the educational lives of their students around the benefits they’re able to get to pick out a private school through these programs.

Brian Anderson: Do you see school choice becoming an issue in the presidential campaigns coming up? Is there a significant federal role in this debate?

Mene Ukueberuwa: Well, it’s an interesting question. I think that the big education reform organizations that are in favor of school choice have always been looking for ways that the federal government, and particularly the education department, can support this movement toward school choice. But there hasn’t really been a proposal that has garnered broad-based support among Republicans in Congress. And I think that that’s because there’s a wide sense that education is fundamentally a state issue. Most of the school funding in our country comes at the state level. It’s paid by state taxpayers and then administered to school districts. And it would be possible theoretically, to have some kind of national scholarship program that gives students the ability to take federal tax dollars and use them towards private school tuition.

But I think a lot of conservatives are rightly wary of that, because you would be broadening the role of the federal government in what has generally been a state issue, that money would come with strings attached. Obviously, if students are receiving federal dollars to attend private schools, then the education department will have some amount of control over the terms of that money being issued. And so, I think this is something that Republicans have rightly been shy of. But that definitely doesn’t foreclose the idea that candidates will run on the message of giving parents more choice, will pledge to support parents in whatever way they see most feasible in expanding school choice. And I do think it’s something that you’ll see Republican candidates talk about on the campaign trail.

Brian Anderson: Thank you very much, Mene. That was a great tour of the horizon of school choice in the country right now. Don’t forget to check out Mene’s work on the City Journal website. That’s Link to his author page in the description. You can find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram, @CityJournal_MI. And as always, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. Mene, great to talk with you as always.

Mene Ukueberuwa: Thanks very much, Brian. This was fun.

Photo: BrianAJackson/iStock

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