Sep 12, 2018

Editor’s Note: This week, Americans United is marking the return of the school year with a special series of education-themed blog posts. Today’s looks at the problems with school vouchers. This post was co-authored by David Silverman, an Americans United intern. 

Proponents of private-school voucher programs argue that a wide range of problems they claim American public school students face—such as bullying and gun violence—can be easily solved by giving parents taxpayer funds to send their children to private school instead of public school.

But, as many new studies have shown, not only do the claims made by voucher supporters fail to withstand closer scrutiny, these programs also allow private, often religious, schools to receive a skyrocketing volume of taxpayer funds without oversight. These facts should be enough to dissuade anyone from the notion that private school voucher programs are what’s best for America’s students.

First, public schools are under legal obligation to be open and nondiscriminatory in their acceptance of all students, regardless of race, sexual orientation or ability. Voucher programs, on the other hand, are governed by different laws in different states, but most allow private schools to accept taxpayer dollars but reject students with vouchers for a variety of reasons, ranging from disability to ability to pay.

That’s right: voucher programs actually fund discrimination. According to an analysis by the Huffington Post of the Florida Hope Scholarship Program—a voucher program aimed at public school students who have undergone bullying—10 percent of the schools participating in the program have “zero tolerance policies” for LGBTQ students. And nearly 20 percent of participating schools have dress-code policies that lead to disproportionately punish students of color.

According to another study, none of the states with private-school voucher programs comprehensively protect LGBTQ and racial-minority voucher recipients from discrimination at their new schools (protection that they would be entitled to in public schools under federal law).

If the use of taxpayer dollars to fund flagrant discrimination, often along religious lines, was not dissuading enough, multiple studies indicate that vouchers do not improve academic achievement. Recent studies of the LouisianaIndianaOhio, and the District of Columbia voucher programs have revealed that students who used vouchers perform worse academically than their peers. In addition, studies of long-standing voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland found that students offered vouchers showed no improvement in reading or math over those not in the program.

Not only do voucher programs fail to protect students or improve their academic performance, they also violate everyone’s religious liberty rights by funneling millions of taxpayers’ dollars toward religious education, often with little to no oversight. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin where the original voucher program began in the 1990s, over 80 percent of voucher schools require their students to participate in religious education. In Florida’s new voucher program, 25 percent of the participating schools use textbooks created by Abeka and Bob Jones University that promote an ultra-conservative fundamentalist views, including racist versions of history and backward ideas about women and non-Christians. And in Arizona, where all but two of the 20 private schools receiving the most vouchers from the state are  religious, particularly Christian, a recent study uncovered that the taxpayers end up paying 75 percent more per student to attend these private schools than they would pay to educate a typical public school student.

Taxpayers who are forced to pay for vouchers suffer multiple harms: They are forced to underwrite religious education and discrimination, and their children may remain in public schools that are struggling in the face of budget cuts; indeed, in Arizona, expenses for vouchers have increased 50-fold to $141 million annually from the state’s General Fund, the same fund that must also support all of the state’s public schools. And all of this without any evidence that vouchers actually improve education. American taxpayers and students deserve better.