Could school vouchers take hold in Washington state?

By Debbie Cafazzo

The News Tribune

What might change in public schools after Donald Trump becomes president in January is anyone’s guess.

But experts and insiders are predicting that education changes will not be a high priority for the Trump administration. During a panel discussion Monday at the National Press Club, several experts said the new administration will likely be more focused on health care and immigration.

If there are changes for education, they will likely come first in higher education, where Trump has promised to privatize student loan programs, some said.

“Education is not on the top of the new president’s list,” said Vic Klatt, a consultant and former top aide to Republicans on the House education committee. He and others said that Trump and Republicans in Congress will likely allow the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015, to take root. ESSA walked back some of the federal demands in previous education law.

The goal of ESSA is to “restore responsibility to state and local school systems,” said David Cleary, chief of staff for Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Alexander, along with Washington state Democrat Sen. Patty Murray, led the effort to write the new law.

Klatt said that the new administration will likely focus efforts in K-12 education on promoting school choice.

During the campaign, Trump released a list of things he’d like to accomplish during the first 100 days of his presidency. Among them: New legislation to redirect federal education dollars to parents, so they can send their children to the school of their choice, including private, charter and magnet schools.

Trump’s campaign pledged an additional federal investment of $20 billion toward school choice, and said the government would favor states that already offer private school choice as an option, along with charters and magnet schools. It also stated a goal of providing school choice to families with school-aged children living in poverty.

Currently, about a dozen states nationwide provide subsidies to parents who send their children to private schools, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some of those states reserve the funding, known as school vouchers, for special education students or low-income students.

Vouchers have been a popular cause among conservatives for years. But the concept has faced stiff opposition in Washington state.

In 1996, a ballot initiative backed by an Olympia real estate developer, the late Ron Taber, would have allowed Washington parents to use vouchers for private school tuition. It failed at the polls.

Taber’s initiative would have excluded religious private schools from receiving state vouchers, however. The reason: Washington’s state constitution contains strong safeguards that block public funding from religious schools or institutions.

“Having a federal voucher program implemented in Washington could encounter issues around our state constitution,” said Hugh Spitzer, a University of Washington law professor and state constitutional law specialist.

One portion of Washington’s constitution states emphatically: “All schools maintained or supported wholly or in part by the public funds shall be forever free from sectarian control or influence.”

And another section reads: “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.”

Spitzer said there have been attempts throughout Washington history to offer state assistance or funding to religious schools. But he said each of those attempts has been struck down in court.

Is there a way around the constitution, should school vouchers for religious schools become a national program? Spitzer describes the path as a circuitous one.

He said that if the federal government asked the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to distribute federal school vouchers to Washington parents for use in religious schools, our state would likely demand that the federal government pay for the distribution personnel and procedures. But that scenario is unlikely, he added.

“This is not the way the federal government operates,” Spitzer said.