‘Fiendishly Clever’: States Use Backdoor Vouchers To Fund Private Religious Schools

Neo-voucher programs, now operating in eight states, do little beyond funnel public money away from the neediest public school students toward religious schools and the students currently enrolled there.

It seems there is a universal rule for promoting school voucher schemes: “If at first you don’t succeed, lie, lie again.”

An excellent expose published by The New York Times explains how some states have been able to advance their “school choice” agenda despite court rulings that have blocked aid to religious schools in the past. 

According to the front-page report, the most effective backdoor voucher ploy came courtesy of then-Arizona state Rep. Trent Franks, who helped create Arizona’s tuition tax-credit program, which was the first of its kind. The program is pretty simple: individuals and corporations that give money to private school tuition-assistance programs can receive a tax credit.

But the credits are just a disguise for public subsidies of religious education, and the disguise has worked. The Arizona legislature adopted the program in 1997, and the U.S. Supreme Court scuttled a lawsuit against it last year on technical grounds. (Five justices – you can guess which ones -- said the plaintiffs challenging the program didn’t have “standing” to sue.)

Franks, now a U.S. congressman, told the Times, “The teachers’ union called [the tax credit scheme] fiendishly clever.”

Thanks to the high court’s stance and big-bucks political backing from the American Federation for Children and the American Legislative Exchange Council, it seems likely that `tax-credit schemes will multiply – and that’s a very bad thing for anyone who values church-state separation and a strong public education system.

The Times piece details how these neo-voucher programs, now operating in eight states, do little beyond funnel public money away from the neediest public school students toward religious schools and the students currently enrolled there.

In Georgia, for example, a tuition tax-credit program costs the state about $50 million annually. The idea, supposedly, was to help students escape failing public schools – but that’s not what happens. The schools admit as much.

 “A very small percentage of that money will be set aside for a needs-based scholarship fund,” Wyatt Bozeman, an administrator at Gwinnett Christian Academy, said, according to the Times. “The rest of the money will be channeled to the family that raised it.”

Another official with that school told the Times that the students who benefit most from the programs are those who have “friends, relatives or even corporations that pay Georgia income tax” because they can all get big tax breaks for their donations. 

At a time when states are more in need of revenue than at any point since the 1930s, potential resources are being forfeited in part so private schools can spread creationism, the Times reported.

Most of the private schools in Georgia, for example, are religious in nature, and they use texts that fit with their belief system. The Times said a widely used sixth-grade science book omits evolution entirely while preaching creationism, and an economics book used in some high schools there says that the Antichrist will someday control everything that is bought and sold.

Still another high school science text, produced by a Florida publisher for use in private schools, says that “much variety within the human race has developed from the eight people who left the Ark,” the Times said. 

Americans United has opposed voucher schemes for years, and this Times story is consistent with what we’ve been warning. States that claim the only way students can be “saved” from failing public schools is by sending them (and their money) to private schools are not only weakening public education, they’re also funding religion.

Doing that isn’t helping anyone, except self-serving lawmakers, right-wing ideologues and sectarian lobbyists who hate public schools and want to indoctrinate children. 

The New York Times has performed an extraordinary public service by exposing the tuition tax-credit scam. Legislators who push this proposal now can’t claim they don’t know what it’s really all about.