We fact-checked Jeb Bush's claim that he launched America's first-ever statewide voucher program

At last night’s Republican presidential debate, K-12 education made its way onto the agenda with a question posed to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) about his support for the Common Core.

Bush deflected an answer about his support for the controversial nationwide standards, instead pivoting to a discussion about his work with school vouchers.

“As governor of the state of Florida I created the first statewide voucher program in the country,” Bush said.

Presidential debates are often arenas of bombastic proclamations. They offer a stage for presidential hopefuls to paint their most attractive accomplishments and sometimes lend themselves to “resume inflation.”

Bush, however, was not over-selling his accomplishment. In 1999, under his gubernatorial oversight, Florida became the first state in the nation with a statewide voucher program.

Under that program, which Bush made the centrepiece of his agenda, students in Florida’s worst public schools could get vouchers of up to $US3,389 to attend private and parochial schools.

Seven years later, in 2006, Ohio passed a statewide voucher program. Since then, a number of others have passed voucher programs.

School vouchers aim to provide parents control to send their kids to the school of their choosing.

”Why should we trap kids in schools that aren’t working?” Bush said to The New York Times in 1999. He said the wealthy have the ability to choose where their children go to school, so impoverished people should have the same ability.

Bush’s school choice accomplishment was a politically safe achievement to bring up at a Republican debate.

School vouchers are lauded by conservatives as examples of the free market at work in education. Families can choose to leave failing schools, a phenomenon that is referred to as families “voting with their feet.”

But school vouchers remain a deeply divisive issue, breaking largely among party lines.

Opponents decry vouchers as detrimental to public schools. Critics also say vouchers hurt students, as not all children will choose to leave their schools for a slot in a private school classroom. Vouchers then move essential dollars out of needy public schools and into the private school sector.

Teachers unions are also major opponents of the so-called school choice movement.

“[Vouchers have] done a tremendous amount of harm in destabilizing already austerity-filled and under-resourced schools all throughout America,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told The Times in 2014.

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