Private school voucher programs all around the country are siphoning public money into private and religious schools, resulting in a slew of civil rights and regulatory problems. According to a recent Politico article, these voucher schemes are growing fast: five new programs were enacted last year, six programs were expanded, and taxpayers in 14 states will lose $1 billion this year to unaccountable school voucher programs.
The majority of children participating in these programs attend religious schools, which are typically subsidized by their respective religious denomination, and thus are the cheapest private school option. Because private schools don’t need to follow the same standards as public schools, they often end up with questionable curricula, such as science class lessons that teach creationism, the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, and that humans lived alongside dinosaurs.
Bills that create voucher schemes like these come in many different forms: recently, AU has opposed bills that create voucher programs, tuition tax credit programs, and constitutional amendments that are designed to open the door to voucher schemes. All of this legislation results in threats to religious freedom and often unregulated use of taxpayer money.
Vouchers in Tennessee
After the Senate Education Committee has repeatedly put off floor votes on three different voucher bills in the last month—it rescheduled the hearing a whopping six times—the Committee is finally moving forward with SB 196/HB 190. This bill would create a state-wide voucher program for students from the bottom five percent of the state’s lowest achieving schools.
Even though this voucher program is the narrowest one proposed, it is rife with problems. Not only do voucher schools lack academic accountability, but they are also legally able to discriminate against students (for example, expelling a student because he is gay) despite receiving taxpayer money.
Tuition Tax Credits in Maryland and Kansas
Tuition Tax Credits suffer from the same problems as voucher programs – the only difference is the mechanism by which taxpayer money flows to private schools. Voucher programs funnel taxpayer money already collected by the government to public schools. Tuition tax credit programs forgo collecting taxes from corporations and individuals if they contribute to organizations that provide private school tuition. The result is the same: public money is used for unregulated private and religious schools.
Dr. April Wuensch, President of the AU Maryland Chapter, recently submitted a letter to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee opposing Maryland SB 633, which would establish a tuition tax credit benefit for businesses. Luckily, the bill never moved and the Maryland legislature has adjourned for the session.
The Kansas legislature recently passed HB 2506, which would establish a tuition tax credit for corporations. If you live in Kansas, please urge Governor Brownback to veto this bill.
“Personal Accounts for Learning” in Florida and “Individualized Education Fund” in Mississippi
Florida’s SB 1512 would establish “personal accounts for learning,” allowing parents to use public funds to send their child with special needs to private sectarian schools. Again, this program suffers from the same problems as a straightforward voucher program. Regrettably, this bill is particularly harmful for students with special needs because they lose many of the rights they would receive in public schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
This bill is also impractical. If a public school is unable to care for a student with special needs, IDEA already may send that student to a private school that can provide the service at no cost to the family. If the family opts to participate in this voucher program, they would lose many of the protections provided by IDEA and would be responsible for tuition and fees not covered by the voucher.
AU submitted a letter opposing this bill, but the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee unfortunately passed it last week. AU will continue to monitor the bill.
A similar bill in Mississippi, HB 765, which would have established an Individualized Education Fund for special needs students, recently died in the legislature.
A Constitutional Amendment in Alaska
SJR 9 would have added a provision to Alaska’s Constitution to allow the state to use public money for religious school tuition, opening the door for a private school voucher program. Alaska had a Senate floor vote scheduled last month on whether to amend the state constitution in this way, but the resolution was pulled from the Senate floor due to a lack of support, preventing a vote from happening.
It’s not surprising there was a lack of support in Alaska: vouchers are unpopular nationwide. In the 2013 PDK/Gallup Poll, 70 percent of respondents said they oppose private school vouchers.
No matter how the legislature labels the program, taxpayers deserve to know their public funds are being put to good use. Voucher programs are unregulated, lack quality control and academic accountability, and lack civil rights protections. To stay informed about potential private school voucher programs in your state, sign up for our action alerts and check out our State Action Center.