During the post-Brown desegregation era, public funding for private schools typically came in the form of vouchers – providing direct payments to students who attended private schools. As states abandoned these policies, vouchers became nearly obsolete. In 1990, only one state offered a voucher program, but over the past few decades proponents of vouchers have re-emerged and explored new and creative ways to fund private school education, including through tax credit scholarships, which are an indirect form of vouchers.
The first of these programs was enacted in Arizona in 1997, based on a model bill from the American Legislative Exchange Council – a national group of conservative lawmakers that support free market and limited government principles. ALEC has worked to promote vouchers and tax credit scholarships in states across the country in recent years through the introduction of “model legislation” which legislators can copy word-for-word. Often, ALEC models offer small or pilot voucher programs, opening the door for public funding of private schools and for later expansion of these programs. As of the end of 2014, 19 states across America had established programs that provide government funding to support children’s attendance in private schools, which have greater rates of segregation than public schools.
These state programs are located in each region of the nation, but, unsurprisingly if history is kept in mind, they are concentrated in the South, with nine Southern states enacting voucher or tax credit legislation over a time when low income students and students of color became the majority of the region’s public school students. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia have statewide programs that provide state-funded vouchers and/or state tax credits to support student attendance in private schools. During recent years, legislators in three other Southern states (Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas) introduced bills to create and fund tax credit scholarships or voucher programs for private schools, and many other state legislatures are considering starting or expanding programs to fund enrollment in private schools.
As the demographic shifts that have occurred in the South spread across the nation, public subsidization of private education has spread, as well. Across the US in 2013-14, nearly $1 billion in public funds was diverted from state treasuries to private schools.
Additionally, there have been renewed proposals for national legislation to direct federal funds in education to “follow the child” wherever parents may decide to send their children, including the option of private schools. Notably, in 2014, US Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee introduced legislation to allow federal funds to follow certain groups of children to whatever school they choose to attend. Senator Alexander continued his advocacy for “follow the child” funding in his role as the new chairman of the Senate education committee responsible for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Most recently, in 2015, a Republican-sponsored amendment was introduced late in the ESEA reauthorization debate (the A-PLUS Act), which would have allowed Title I dollars to flow to private school institutions. This amendment was ultimately defeated, but by a slim margin of four votes.
Much of the legislation adopted and considered to fund private schools in the Southern states in recent years has been introduced and supported with the stated purpose of improving educational opportunities for low income students, many of whom are students of color, especially Black and Hispanic students. However, an analysis of demographic and enrollment patterns, in addition to the historical uses of such policies, paint a markedly different picture. Across the nation, the demographics of public and private school enrollments across the South and the nation are very different. While public schools in the United States served a student body that was approximately 51 percent white and 48.3 percent children of color – primarily Hispanic and Black children—nearly three out of every four private school students were white. Comprised of both a wide range of religious schools and a smaller set of independent, nonsectarian schools, the nation’s private schools enrolled over 20 percentage points more white students than the public schools. Despite these trends, black students can still often be found on promotional materials produced by private schools and scholarship organizations.
Most states that have enacted vouchers and tax credit scholarships programs in recent years do not collect or publicly provide reliable data on the race and ethnicity of students who attend private schools with public funding. For this reason, there is no verifiable means at this time to accurately determine the demographic characteristics of private school students whose attendance have been subsidized by state funds across the 19 states. Yet, enrollment patterns in private schools show that they are still overwhelmingly white, even in states where education tax credits and/or vouchers have been implemented.