Across the country, children are either back in school or are returning soon. And that means that public school teachers are digging into their own pockets to pay for school supplies.

The Economic Policy Institute reports that the average U.S. public school teacher spends $459 on school supplies for which they are not reimbursed. The overwhelming majority do this: only about 5 percent of teachers said they don’t ever buy supplies with their own money.

It’s troubling that so many districts are so cash-strapped that teachers have to do this. And that’s one reason why it’s so infuriating to see any of our precious tax dollars being diverted away from public schools to private school voucher schemes that support private, mostly religious schools.

Public schools serve 90 percent of America’s schoolchildren. By law, they are open to all, regardless of race, religion, economic status, gender, disability, etc. The men and women who work in our public schools can’t be fired for capricious reasons such as being the “wrong” religion or failure to adhere to religious tenets. Public schools are governed by democratically elected boards composed of people who live in the community.

Best of all, our public schools are required by law to be secular. The schools can and do teach objectively about religion, but they can’t compel students to take part in prayer or worship or teach religious views of origins in science classes. They welcome students of all faiths and none.

Private schools play by different rules. Most voucher plans offer minimal (if any) serious oversight, so these schools often remain free to deny admission to or expel students at will. Teachers and staff can be fired for being the “wrong” faith or falling afoul of religious dictates. Children can be taught views that are anti-LGBTQ, anti-woman and anti-science. They can be taught “Christian nation” mythology instead of actual history. Under voucher plans, your tax dollars pay for this.

As our nation’s young people return to public schools, there are things you can do to shore up the system. First, support your local public schools. It doesn’t matter if your children are grown or you never had children. The kids attending public schools in your town are your neighbors and fellow residents of your community. Someday, they will be the next generation of workers, teachers and leaders shaping our country. It’s in everyone’s best interest that today’s children receive the best education possible, and the first step to that is making sure their public schools are adequately funded.

Second, arm yourself with facts about the threat vouchers pose to public education and oppose these schemes. To learn more, visit the website of the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), a coalition co-chaired by Americans United that includes more than 50 education, civic, civil rights and religious organizations devoted to the support of public schools. NCPE has pulled together a lot of research showing that voucher plans don’t work and that they harm public education by siphoning off needed funds.  

Finally, support public school teachers. At this time of year, when so many of them are pulling out their own wallets to stock their classrooms, they’ll be happy to hear that you appreciate all that they do. And if there’s a way you can support their classrooms by donating supplies and offering other forms of help, so much the better.