New GAO Report Examines Rapid Voucher Growth Across Nation

A new report from the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) examines the growing impact the proliferation of private school choice programs such as vouchers and Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) is having on public school districts. The report focuses specifically on the obligation of public schools to provide federally funded “equitable services” to private school students under IDEA and Title I.

The report, entitled, “Private School Choice Programs Are Growing and Can Complicate Providing Certain Federally Funded Services to Eligible Students” recommends that “given the growing number of private school choice programs, the Secretary of Education should incorporate information about providing equitable services in the context of private school choice programs into guidance.” According to the report, the U.S. Department of Education agrees with this recommendation.

The GAO Report prompted Wisconsin 2nd District Congressman Mark Pocan (D-Madison), a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, to issue a press release calling on the U.S. Department of Education to take the necessary steps to ensure proper oversight and encourage accountability of taxpayer-funded voucher schools.

Among other things, the release notes, “Taxpayer-funded voucher schools across the country also lack requirements regarding high educational standards for teachers, discriminate against certain students, and can mandate religious requirements for admission-blurring the lines between separation of church and state.” Pocan’s office also released what it called a fact sheet regarding the findings of the GAO’s report.

In addition, the report prompted Pocan to write an Op-Ed piece published by the Huffington Post website entitled, “Why You Should Be Worried About The Rapid Rise of Private Voucher Schools.”

The report describes the rapid growth in the number and scope of voucher programs over the past 25 years. According to the GAO’s survey and related follow-up. participation in private school choice programs nationally has more than doubled in the past 5 years.

From the 2010-11 through 2014-15 school years, participation in private school choice programs grew from approximately 70,000 students to approximately 147,000. During that time period, the funding these programs provided for students increased from approximately $400 million to $859 million, according to the GAO.

Since 2010, nine states have started 13 new private school choice programs—seven states started new voucher programs and two states started new ESA programs—contributing to this increase in participation. In addition, the report notes that two additional voucher programs (in Arkansas and Colorado) and three additional ESA programs (in Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee) were authorized but not operating for all or part of 2015 when the study was conducted.

The report distinguishes between voucher programs and ESA programs, noting that:

“While vouchers generally provide interested parents with funding for tuition at a religious or secular private school. ESAs are typically designed to fund a broader set of educational expenses, such as private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, education therapies, or higher education expenses. The first voucher program began in 1990, and the first ESA program began more recently in 2011. … In addition, ESA programs also lay out which expenses are allowed and what to do with any unused funds. For example, both ESAs operating in school year 2014-15 allowed funds to be used for college savings plans or for a student to enroll in college courses, according to program officials and our review of ESA documents.”

An item in the Forward Agenda announced by state Assembly Republicans last week states: “We will explore implementing Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to provide families with access to savings that can be used only for education-related expenses, including tuition, textbooks and tutoring.”  (See previous post.)