Fact Check: Do Voucher Programs Really Increase Public School Funding? 

Governor Abbott’s “School Choice” Claims Don’t Hold Up to the Facts 

Gov. Greg Abbott has recently made some bold claims about the impacts of voucher programs like Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) on public school funding.  

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Abbott stated that, “In 97% of states with school choice programs, funding for public schools has gone UP” and claimed this shows “School choice helps every student thrive.” He also asserted that “NO funds from public schools would be used for an ESA.” 

However, a careful look at the data and evidence from states with long-running voucher programs shows that Abbott’s claims simply do not hold up. In fact, the reality is the opposite. Even representatives of Abbott’s own Texas Education Agency (TEA) have privately admitted that vouchers would decrease funding for public schools. 

As Hotline readers will recall, in a secretly recorded phone call made public, TEA Deputy Commissioner Steve Lecholop acknowledged that voucher programs could negatively impact school district finances because losing students also means losing state funding. “School districts, what they have to do if they lose a student, [is] be smart about how they allocate their resources, and maybe that’s one less fourth grade teacher,” Lecholop said.  

This rare moment of honesty from a top TEA official affirms what a new report by Public Funds Public Schools, a Southern Poverty Law Center project, found when it analyzed trends in voucher spending and public education funding from fiscal year 2008 through 2019 in seven states with the most extensive experience with voucher programs: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Wisconsin.  

The findings are eye-opening: 

  • In all seven of these states, spending on voucher programs more than doubled over this period, with the increases ranging from 119% in Wisconsin to an astonishing 883% in Georgia. By 2019, Florida alone was spending nearly $1 billion annually to fund private school tuition through vouchers with an annual growth rate of 13.8%. 
  • Yet as voucher expenditures skyrocketed, six of these seven states substantially reduced or froze their investment in public education on a per-student basis, adjusting for inflation. The declines in per-pupil funding ranged from -1.5% in Indiana to -12% in Florida. This occurred even as most of these states saw increases in public school enrollment.  
  • In all seven states, the portion of the state economy (GDP) invested in K-12 public schools declined between 2008 and 2019. Each state’s national ranking on this measure of “education effort” fell, in some cases precipitously. For example, Georgia fell from eighth to 31st in the nation, while Arizona dropped from 38th all the way to 50th — dead last. 
  • Meanwhile, over the same period, per-student funding for K-12 public education increased by an average of 10.7% nationally in the 43 states that did not have long-standing voucher programs. Only Ohio matched or exceeded this national average.  

What explains these troubling trends? The report points out that even when a student uses a voucher to transfer to private school, most of the fixed costs of operating a public school district  — facilities, maintenance, transportation, utilities — remain. Vouchers also impose entirely new costs on state budgets rather than redirecting existing funds since most voucher students were not previously enrolled in public schools (anywhere from 75% to 89% in states like Arizona, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin). Furthermore, a 2018 policy paper by the Grand Canyon Institute found that in Arizona, the cost of educating a student with a voucher is 75% higher than the cost of educating a student in public school. The available evidence shows that vouchers do not save states money that can be reinvested into public schools. Instead, they result in ballooning state budgets and the diversion of needed funding from public schools. 

In short, both real-world evidence from other states and the private admissions of top Texas education officials demonstrate that Abbott’s assertions about the harmlessness of voucher programs are false. As funding increasingly flows to private school vouchers, public schools are left with fewer resources to educate the 90% of students they continue to serve, especially higher-need student populations.  

Abbott also overlooks the serious issues of accountability, transparency, and discrimination in private schools receiving vouchers that are documented in the report. For example, private voucher schools often turn away students with disabilities and LGBTQ+ students. Many teach religiously infused curricula. Yet they are exempt from the academic standards, testing, and reporting requirements public schools must follow.  

A substantial body of research has consistently found that vouchers fail to improve student achievement and often cause significant harm, particularly in math. For example, a 2019 study of the Louisiana voucher program by the University of Arkansas found that after four years, voucher students performed 24 percentile points below their public school peers in math. A 2016 study by a conservative think tank reported similar results in Ohio, noting voucher students “fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools” and that these negative impacts “appear to persist over time.” A pair of 2018 studies found that Washington D.C. voucher students performed significantly worse in math than non-voucher students, with one study finding voucher students falling behind by 10 percentile points after two years and another that attending a voucher school had a larger negative effect on math achievement than all other factors reviewed, including feeling unsafe in school and teacher turnover.  

Abbott’s claim that “School choice helps every student thrive” is at odds with this growing evidence that vouchers can seriously undermine student learning, especially for the most vulnerable children. 

Texans deserve an honest, fact-based conversation about the track record and real fiscal and social costs of school privatization programs. Our state’s economic prosperity and the well-being of millions of Texas children depends on ensuring all have access to a high-quality public education. Diverting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private schools, while cutting funding for public schools, would be a reckless step in the wrong direction. Our state leaders must focus instead on providing our public schools the full funding they need to help every child achieve their potential. 

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