Senate GOP, school choice advocates push new voucher-style program in Minnesota

By: - May 5, 2021 7:34 am

Photo by Amanda Mills, courtesy CDC.

Republicans want to put Minnesota on the front lines of school choice innovation again with a new program that would give families state money to pay for private school tuition, textbooks and school supplies.

These “education savings accounts” have been championed by conservatives nationwide as the new frontier in school choice and sparked the interest of families frustrated by public schools. Supporters in Minnesota say the program — included in the Senate’s education budget bill — would give students better opportunities in a state with some of the nation’s worst racial disparities in education.

But experts say there’s little evidence linking voucher-style programs to academic gains, and low-income students are often left out of education savings account programs altogether. The Minnesota Department of Education, the teachers union and Democrats oppose the proposal. They point to the lack of research on the idea’s effectiveness, as well as the parasitic funding — the money would come directly out of local school budgets.

“Absent rigorous oversight — which proponents of these programs reject, discourage or are unwilling to build into the programs — then kids are going to suffer,” said Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, an education think tank at Georgetown University. “These programs have to be designed very carefully to promote equity and excellence. And most of them are not designed to promote either.”

Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, who authored the savings account bill, told legislators it would empower parents.

“They deserve self-determination. They deserve choice and options beyond what we have now. To give them the ability to do that will absolutely cause no harm,” Chamberlain said. “It will improve everything. True equality.”

Chamberlain declined an interview request.

Education savings accounts are a little different than traditional vouchers, which parents can only spend on school tuition and transportation. The Senate bill would give families who leave public schools for accredited private schools or homeschooling money to use for a range of education costs, or to save for college.

One percent of Minnesota’s student body — about 8,600 students — would be eligible in fiscal year 2023, increasing to 2% in 2025. The program would be open on a first-come, first-served basis to families earning up to three times the income limit for reduced-price lunch, or about $150,000 for a family of four.

Each student would get an amount equal to average per-pupil education spending in Minnesota — roughly $13,000 in 2019. It would be paid out in monthly installments on a debit card until they graduate high school or re-enroll in a public school.

The accounts would shift about $63 million from general education funding over the next two years, and add up to $11.5 million in new spending.

About 21,000 students in five states use education savings accounts, or ESAs, according to school choice advocacy organization EdChoice, and three more states passed ESA laws this year. Arizona was the first state to adopt the program in 2011, partly to work around constraints that prohibited using public money to fund religious private schools.

Rashad Turner, president of the Minnesota Parent Union, said parents he works with have been supportive of the idea. The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the deficiencies in Minnesota’s school system, especially for students of color and low-income students, he said.

Parents want to help their children catch up, Turner said — but tutors, homeschooling curriculum and elite schools are out of reach for many.

Education savings accounts are sure to be a nonstarter for members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor-controlled House as legislators hash out a compromise on the education budget bill over the next two weeks. Former public school teacher Gov. Tim Walz would almost certainly veto it in any case.

During Senate debate last month, DFL lawmakers criticized the program for taking money away from public schools for a program that isn’t proven to work. Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, offered an amendment to remove the language from the budget bill.

“I find it a bit disingenuous when I hear the continual rhetoric against public schools, when you are a part of the reason why they’re not doing well,” Isaacson said of Republicans.

There’s little research about the effects of ESAs on student learning, but studies on vouchers so far haven’t found widespread academic benefits for students who switch to private schools.

Research in Ohio, Louisiana and Indiana found that students’ test scores dropped when they used vouchers to enroll in private schools, and the declines persisted for years. A handful of studies show mixed results on the likelihood of attending and completing college, with some finding that vouchers had no effect and others identifying small gains.

Toch said transparency is a major issue with education savings accounts. Private schools don’t have to measure or report student progress like public schools, and they’re not required to give standardized tests. That means it’s difficult to know how schools spend money and whether students benefit academically unless states build in accountability measures, which the Minnesota bill does not.

The proposed income cap of $150,000 in Minnesota seems high, Toch said. More than 80% of Minnesota households reported income under $150,000 in 2019, according to Census data. The state’s median income is about $74,000.

Often, programs with high income limits end up subsidizing wealthier families who could afford to pay for private school already or were already enrolled in private school, Toch said.

If the program were passed in Minnesota, a small number of families are expected to pull their children from private school and enroll in public school for one semester to meet the program’s eligibility requirements, then sign up for private school again with the state money.

Private school admission standards pose another problem for accessibility, Toch said. In a 2016 survey of nearly 150 Minnesota private schools, one-third reported requirements beyond proof of age and residence.

Moreover, the relatively high income ceiling means wealthier families would crowd out low-income students who are struggling in school, Toch said. 

“If they really wanted to help poor Black and brown kids, they wouldn’t set the limit at $150,000,” he said. “The advocates of these programs, who tend to be Republicans, are playing to more affluent Republican constituents, in the name of supporting poor Black kids.”

Turner said nonprofits like the Parent Union would step in to ensure families of color and low-income families have access to the program. These organizations help close the information gap in hard-to-navigate school systems, he said.

“It’s just embarrassing that there’s opposition to giving families a choice. This is a choice — we’re not forcing families to take advantage,” Turner said.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.