Private school voucher programs in Florida and Indiana have made headlines in recent weeks, and the news is not good. This comes as no surprise to us at Americans United, as years of studies have shown that vouchers don’t improve student achievement and lack accountability. They also funnel public money to private, mostly religious schools that can discriminate and that ignore federal civil rights laws.
The latest study highlighting vouchers’ poor academic results looks at Indiana’s program, the nation’s largest. Researchers studied thousands of low-income Indiana students who used a voucher to switch from public to private schools beginning in the 2011-12 school year.
Focusing on students in grades five through eight over the course of four years, the study found the voucher students consistently scored worse in math than their public school peers. The results for English proficiency were a wash; “there were no statistically significant positive effects after four years,” was how the education blog Chalkbeat described it. These study results echo those from an Indiana voucher study released last year.
So, Indiana diverts more than $150 million per year in taxpayer money away from public schools and into private schools with little to show for it. “Although school vouchers aim to provide greater educational opportunities for students, the goal of improving the academic performance of low-income students who use a voucher to move to a private school has not yet been realized in Indiana,” wrote the study’s authors.
Meanwhile, despite accepting public funding, some of these private voucher schools discriminate against students and staff with no ramifications from the state. Roncalli High School, a Catholic school in Indiana that has received more than $6.5 million in taxpayer money over five years through the state’s voucher programs, reportedly is moving to fire a 15-year employee after learning that she is a lesbian.
Roncalli guidance counselor Shelley Fitzgerald posted on Facebook that school officials gave her an ultimatum after recently learning she had married her wife four years ago. She said she was told she could resign, dissolve her marriage, stay quiet and let her contract lapse at year’s end, or be fired.
“The guidance counselor says she has no intention of divorcing, quitting or, ‘not telling anyone why I have to leave the job I’ve loved so much,’” an Indianapolis TV station reported, quoting Fitzgerald. She added. “I ask that you pray for my family, for change in the world, and know I have absolutely loved my job for the past 15 years.”
Students attending private voucher schools also can face discrimination – which is a particularly alarming facet of Florida’s newest voucher scheme. The Florida Hope Scholarship Program begins this year and is marketed for students who have been “bullied, harassed, or hazed.”
But in reality, this program will strip bullied students of important federal and state protections because Florida private schools don’t have to follow anti-bullying and antidiscrimination laws like public schools do. And as a recent Huffington Post report notes, many of the private schools in Florida’s new voucher program discriminate against LGBTQ students – a population that’s a major target of bullying.
HuffPo found that of the 70 schools that had signed up for the new Florida voucher program, at least 10 percent had a “zero tolerance” policy for LGBTQ students. The report cited student handbooks that noted prohibitions on homosexuality or refer to it as “an abomination to God,” and curriculum and textbooks that “promote regressive or hateful ideas about LGBTQ people, women and non-Christians.”
Imagine how it would be for an LGBTQ student who has already been bullied at another school to transfer to one of these private voucher schools, only to be turned away because of their identity or to have to sit through lessons that denigrate their humanity.
The HuffPo story includes an interview with Lyana Rodriguez, 24, a former student of a Florida Christian high school that participates in voucher programs and is eligible to participate in the new voucher program for bullied students.
Rodriguez said she transferred to Westwood Christian School after being bullied at a different private religious school. But things were no better at Westwood: She was bullied there as well and struggled with her religious beliefs and sexual orientation, which didn’t align with the school’s teachings. “She had nightmares about being damned to an eternity in hell,” HuffPo reported.
These latest stories add to the already voluminous body of evidence that vouchers don’t work. Public money should fund public schools, which educate 90 percent of American schoolchildren.