Second-grade students at Roosevelt Elementary in Boise, Idaho (AP Photo/Idaho Statesman, Joe Jaszewski)

Ever since Milton Friedman’s 1955 essay “The Role of Government in Education,” economic libertarians have dreamed of privatizing America’s system of public schools. In place of a school system that is publicly funded, democratically governed, and accessible to all, policy entrepreneurs have sought to transform American education into a commodity—something to be bought and sold in a free market.

In the push to privatize education, the tip of the spear has always been school vouchers—policies that extract funds from public schools in order to subsidize private-school tuition. Milwaukee established the nation’s first voucher program in 1990. In the following twenty-five years, voucher experiments were rolled out in fits and starts, often meeting with stiff public resistance. Voucher advocates gained significant footholds in Ohio, Washington D.C., Indiana, and elsewhere, but lacked the power to fundamentally transform the nation’s public-school system.

The cause has gained unprecedented momentum during the past five years. In their book A Wolf at the School House Door (2020), Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider sounded the alarm about “an increasingly potent network of conservative state and federal elected officials, advocacy groups, and think tanks…backed by deep-pocketed funders,” all of them committed to dismantling public education as an institution. The new assault on public education intensified in the pandemic era, as voucher advocates seized the opportunity of mass school closures to propose—and in many cases enact—sweeping privatization schemes. In states across the country, the voucher agenda went hand in hand with efforts to sow distrust in public education by claiming, usually without evidence, that schools had become centers for critical race theory, “gender ideology,” and other forms of “social-justice indoctrination.” Meanwhile, voucher proponents were energized by landmark decisions of the United States Supreme Court, most notably Espinoza v. Montana in 2020 and Carson v. Makin in 2022, both of which appeared to remove constitutional obstacles to the use of public dollars for private religious education.

The nationally coordinated push to privatize public education is one of the most corrosive developments in American life. While Catholics and members of other faith communities have rightly cherished private parochial education, they, too, have strong reasons to support America’s public schools even if their own children do not attend them. It is an essential feature of the mission of public education to affirm the dignity of every child and to prepare each child to be a full participant in civic and economic life. As Berkshire and Schneider put it, public education “is our collective effort to realize for all young people their full human potential, regardless of circumstance.”


Fortunately, the coordinated attack on public education has met strong resistance from educators, students, parents, and citizens in several states across the country. During the 2023 legislative session here in Idaho, legislators presented a long series of voucher bills. One proposal sought to enact universal “education savings accounts” (ESAs) that would be available to every Idaho family—including the affluent. Other bills proposed tax-credit schemes or more targeted approaches. Every single proposal failed. Remarkably, Idaho remains voucher-free even as the voucher movement has enacted sweeping legislation in Arizona, Florida, West Virginia, Iowa, Arkansas, and elsewhere.

As more states adopt voucher programs, the vast majority of voucher funds are flowing not to students who’ve left public schools but to private-school students who were never in public schools to begin with.

Grassroots organizing has been indispensable in Idaho’s fight against vouchers. A strong coalition of educators, parents, and advocacy organizations—including Reclaim Idaho, an organization I cofounded—has proved to be an effective counterweight to the voucher movement’s deep-pocketed lobbying efforts.

A recent poll by the Idaho Statesman found that public opinion in Idaho is dead set against vouchers, with 63 percent opposed and just 23 percent in support. The mission of organizers has been to translate widespread public opposition into effective political action. To that end, we’ve organized in communities across this vast state and helped citizens become defenders of public schools and sharp critics of voucher schemes. We’ve helped local advocates understand and articulate the arguments against vouchers that resonate most with the public: that vouchers are fiscally reckless, costing far more than advertised; that voucher programs tend to diminish student achievement and discriminate against students with disabilities; and that voucher programs are especially harmful for rural communities where no private-school options exist.

In local efforts to resist vouchers, grassroots organizing can harness the power of personal stories. The voucher movement has attempted to tell their own personalized story by evoking images of poor, marginalized children who’ve been “trapped” in failing public schools. The promise of “school choice” is to give struggling parents the choice to move their children into private schools that better fit their needs. However, as more states adopt voucher programs, the vast majority of voucher funds are flowing not to students who’ve left public schools but to private-school students who were never in public schools to begin with. A total of 89 percent of voucher funds in New Hampshire, 80 percent in Arizona, and 75 percent in Wisconsin have gone to students already enrolled in private schools, and these students disproportionately belong to affluent families living in suburban and urban areas.

The “school choice” story is mostly a fiction, and grassroots organizing can refocus the conversation on personal stories that paint the full picture. When people get organized on the voucher issue, the question can suddenly shift from “Do families deserve more choice?” to “Why would we pull scarce funds from our public schools—especially in rural areas—in order to subsidize tuition for affluent suburban families?” During testimony before the Idaho Senate Education Committee on a bill to create universal ESAs, a public-school supporter named Sheri Hughes phoned in to testify remotely from Challis—a mountain town of 922 people located 190 miles from the state capital. “I know the power and strength of consolidated public money for education, especially in rural Idaho,” Hughes said. She told the committee that her grandfather had served on the Challis school board and helped build the town’s first high school, that her mother—also a school-board member—helped get the high school rebuilt after the 1983 Challis earthquake. “Based on Arizona’s ESA Voucher experience,” Hughes went on, “the money proposed to be removed off the top of Idaho’s education funding budget would take an estimated 17–20 percent of funding away from Challis schools—in an area with no private alternative choices, and where home-school students still access public-school resources for proctoring, band, sports, special ed, and other extracurricular activities.”


Grassroots organizing can also help advocates expose the creative attempts by voucher proponents to present their policy agenda as something less threatening. With the American public skeptical of school vouchers and school privatization more generally, the privatization movement has aggressively sought to rebrand vouchers by means of convoluted policy schemes. Proponents of ESAs claim that they are not proposing vouchers but merely offering families money that can be used for a wide range of education services—including, but not limited to, private-school tuition. Similarly, proponents of “tax-credit scholarships” claim their proposals are distinct from vouchers because they do not directly spend public dollars on private schools but instead award tax credits to individuals who choose to fund private-school scholarships.

Grassroots organizing can expose these policies for what they are: vouchers by another name. In Idaho, we’ve invested time and energy in community meetings across the state where the goal is to share information with local public-education supporters about the mechanics of ESAs, tax-credit scholarships, and other policy schemes. Such meetings have prepared local citizens to speak out forcefully against thinly veiled attempts to siphon funds out of their public schools. Local advocates have written to their legislators, published op-eds and letters to the editor, spoken with friends and neighbors, and—most importantly—many have shown up to testify before the legislature. With so many grassroots advocates raising their voices and telling the truth about these policies, it’s been very difficult for privatizers to maintain the public narrative that they are promoting something other than a repackaged voucher scheme.

Beyond the work of shaping the debate about voucher policies, there’s something even more significant that grassroots organizing can achieve. In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Berkshire and Schneider perceptively observe that the voucher movement isn’t just about policy; it’s also about lowering our expectations about the kind of schools our communities deserve:

Unlike a private good, which benefits only those who consume it, public education benefits all members of the local, state, and national community, whether or not they have children…. Like clean air, a well-educated populace is something with wide-ranging benefits. That’s why we treat public education more like a park than a country club. We tax ourselves to pay for it, and we open it to everyone.

With its relentless call to “fund students, not systems,” the privatization movement attempts to reconceive education as a market commodity that benefits individual students and their parents alone. When we organize to defend our schools from schemes to dismantle them, we affirm the belief that education is a public good—something that we all deserve, and something that benefits all of us. God willing, we’ll emerge from these battles even more committed than before to the promise of public education.

Luke Mayville is cofounder of Reclaim Idaho, an organization that has spearheaded Idaho campaigns to expand Medicaid and increase funding for public schools.

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Published in the December 2023 issue: View Contents
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