Politicians Want Universal School Vouchers. But What About The Public?
Earlier this week, Florida became the fourth state this year to enact a bill that would allow parents to receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to send their children to private schools, joining Iowa, Utah and Arkansas. At least 18 other states have introduced similar bills this term, meaning that almost half of the country’s state legislatures have passed or are considering passing legislature that could reshape the funding of public education by creating voucher programs open to almost any family, rather than reserving funding for students in failing schools or from low-income families.
Legislators are moving forward with these bills as if they’re universally popular, often acting as though they have a mandate to pass them. Iowa state Rep. John Wills told RadioIowa that the expanded Republican majority in the legislature and reelection of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds meant parents wanted school choice. “Her stance was she’s going to campaign on school choice all across the state of Iowa,” he said. “She never stopped talking about it.” In Florida, a Republican co-sponsor of the recently passed bill, state Sen. Corey Simon, told Jax Today, “We are funding students in this state. Parents have spoken.”
But public opinion doesn’t suggest there’s a mandate — it suggests that support for such bills is complicated, varying by state, program design and how the polling questions are asked. Still, these bills are being considered at the same time that support for public schools is declining, especially among Republicans, which could be helping them gain momentum across the country.
National polls on universal vouchers or education savings accounts, as they’re sometimes known, reveal that opinions are mixed — and that often has to do with how pollsters present the questions. According to February polling from Morning Consult/EdChoice, American adults support a voucher system by 28 points (43 percent support its use in K-12 education and 15 percent oppose, with an additional 26 percent saying they never heard of school vouchers), but that figure jumps to 44 points (65 percent support and 21 percent oppose) when the pollster defines vouchers as a system that “allows parents the option of sending their child to the school of their choice, whether that school is public or private, including both religious and non-religious schools. If this policy were adopted, tax dollars currently allocated to a school district would be allocated to parents in the form of a ’school voucher’ to pay partial or full tuition for the child’s school.”
A month later, a survey from Reuters/Ipsos found support for vouchers underwater by 15 points (36 percent support and 51 percent oppose). But the way the question was asked may have a lot to do with the dramatic difference in results: Americans were asked if they supported “[l]aws allowing government money to send students to private and religious schools, even if it reduces money for public schools.” This language emphasizes reduced funding to public schools, which is broadly unpopular, without mentioning potential benefits for parents and students.
Complicating the picture further is the fact that several of the survey sponsors, such as EdChoice and yes. every kid., are advocacy organizations that support voucher programs, which means they may be incentivized to word their poll questions in a way that encourages respondents to indicate support for the programs. They may also be less transparent about how their polls are conducted and how their questions are worded. For example, polling from YouGov/yes. every kid. conducted in November and December of last year found a slight majority (54 percent) of Americans support ESAs, though a significant number (33 percent) were undecided on the issue. But the organization didn’t release complete toplines or question wording, so it’s not clear how much this result might have been influenced by the pollster’s framing of the issue.
In some states where voucher or ESA programs have been moving forward, support for these programs varies.
Universal vouchers aren’t universally popular
Net favorability for school choice, universal vouchers or education savings accounts programs in states where legislation is active
|state||bill||status||pollster||net support||avg. net support|
|AR||SB 294||Signed into law||Opportunity Arkansas Foundation||16%||16%|
|FL||HB 1||Signed into law||WPA Intelligence/yes. every kid.||43||29|
|University of North Florida||14|
|IA||HF 68||Signed into law||Des Moines Register/Mediacom/Selzer & Co.||-28||-16|
|Cygnal/Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation||9|
|Data for Progress/Iowa Starting Line||-29|
|UT||HB 215||Signed into law||Dan Jones/Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics||4||4|
|OK||HB 1935||Passed State House||Tarrance/Oklahoma Education Coalition||-50||-50|
|SC||S 39||Passed State Senate||Spry Strategies/South Carolina Policy Council||30||28|
|Cor Services/Opportunity Solutions Project||25|
|TX||SB 8||Passed committee||RABA Research||-32||4|
|YouGov/University of Texas||5|
|YouGov/University of Houston Hobby School||6|
|UT Tyler/Dallas Morning News||37|
At the state level, results depend not only on question wording but also how the programs in question are designed. In Texas, for example, a RABA Research poll asked 512 adults on March 17 to 18 if they supported “diverting tax revenue away from neighborhood public schools to use for private school vouchers” — 66 percent opposed while 34 percent supported. This was the only statewide survey to show the voucher program underwater, and also the only survey to note that tax funds might be diverted away from public schools. In nearly every poll in which the question has been asked, respondents say public schools are underfunded, so including this language may impact the results.
And program design matters, too. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis had suggested in the past that he might prefer an income limit on the voucher program. But when a poll from WPA Intelligence for yes. every kid. asked about support for vouchers with and without income limits, support dropped when income limits were proposed: The general program was above water by 43 points, while a program with an annual income limit of $200,000 had net support of only 9 points,1 suggesting that Florida voters want the program open to everyone. But in Texas, a YouGov/University of Houston poll showed higher support for tax-funded vouchers for low-income parents (61 percent) than for all parents (53 percent). (A precise income limit was not specified.)
In Iowa, the bill was never popular and support dropped further as it moved through the legislative process. In July, a Cygnal/Iowans for Tax Relief poll found 45 percent support for an ESA program, with a net favorability of nearly 7 points, while a Des Moines Register poll earlier this month — which specified the amount of funding, that it was taxpayer-funded, could be used for private school tuition and that it had been debated or passed in the state legislature — found only 34 percent support, a net unfavorable of 28 points. Not coincidentally, the plan that ultimately passed changed from earlier proposals in important ways: it did away with income limits and also allowed students already enrolled in private school to take advantage.
But in the end, it may not matter how popular these particular voucher programs are: They’re passing in states with Republican trifectas, and Republican voters are increasingly wary of the role public schools play in society. In a Pew Research Center survey from October last year, only 37 percent of Republicans say that public K-12 schools have a positive effect on the United States. Nearly two-thirds of conservative Republicans say that public schools have a negative effect. And a Gallup survey from August found that only 42 percent of Americans were satisfied with the quality of American education. Despite qualms with specific aspects of these voucher programs, these bills may face less opposition than they otherwise would because the public simply isn’t happy with public education.