School choice primarily benefits students not already in private schools

Editor’s note: This commentary from Jay Greene, a senior research fellow in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, and Jason Bedrick, a research fellow with The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, appeared Monday on

As school choice sweeps across the country, opponents are getting more desperate in their attempts to stem the tide. Like those who spring October surprises in presidential campaigns, aiming to derail candidates with false but confidently expressed last-minute accusations, opponents of school choice seek to undermine it with a falsehood just as state legislatures gather to vote on choice proposals.

The misleading falsehood is the claim that universal school choice programs wouldn’t expand opportunity because the vast majority of the beneficiaries would be students who already are enrolled in private schools.

The claim is that choice programs do little more than give taxpayer money to families whose kids already attend or would have attended private schools anyway at their own expense. This may provide financial relief to those families, but they are assumed to be advantaged and therefore undeserving of assistance.

Let’s leave aside the fact that all families pay taxes and so all deserve greater control over how those resources are used to educate their own children. As education freedom advocate Corey DeAngelis reminds us, we should fund students, not systems.

And let’s also ignore the insulting assumption that parents who struggle to pay private school tuition, even as they pay taxes for a public school they don’t use, are somehow unworthy of relief from this double financial burden. The assertion that the vast majority of students who use school choice already were enrolled in private schools is completely untrue.

The main promoter of this false claim is Josh Cowen, a professor at Michigan State University who founded and directed its Education Policy Innovation Collaborative. Cowen, however, ceased being affiliated with that center for reasons that haven’t been disclosed, and, around the same time, became a full-throated advocate against school choice.

Cowen writes in a Network for Public Education blog post:

“Despite supporter rhetoric that voucher schemes are about new opportunities, the reality is 70-80 percent of kids in states like Arizona, Missouri, and Wisconsin were already in private school before taxpayers picked up the tab.”

He also has widely circulated on social media an infographic by the National Coalition for Public Education that answers the question, “Who benefits from school vouchers?” by asserting: “The majority of voucher users in these states have never attended a public school. Vouchers subsidize tuition for students who already attend pricey private schools.”

The coalition’s infographic claims that 80% of choice students in Arizona, 89% of choice students in New Hampshire, and 75% of those in Wisconsin were “already in private school.”

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BY Special to NextSteps