What ‘School Choice’ Advocates Won’t Tell You: Voucher Programs Lack Civil Rights Safeguards

Americans United opposes school vouchers primarily because they are an opportunity for private, religious schools to get a government-funded bailout. After all, nearly two-thirds of the D.C. voucher schools participating in 2014-2015 were faith based.

It’s “National School Choice” week once again, which means religious groups and others who think the government should support their schools through taxpayer-funded vouchers are about to hit you with a load of propaganda.

But here’s something “school choice” advocates don’t want you to know: Plenty of voucher schools fall short of federal civil rights requirements, such as those in Title VI, Title IX, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Among the state-level schemes that violate some of these statutes is Louisiana’s voucher program, which has been cited by the federal government for stalling court-ordered desegregation efforts.

One other particularly glaring deficiency at many of these schools is their subpar (or non-existent) accommodations for students with disabilities. Take the Washington, D.C., private school voucher program – a controversial, federally funded ploy that has been around since 2003. An analysis by Americans United’s legislative department found that of the 57 schools participating in the program for the 2014-2015 academic year, 20 (35 percent) offered no wheelchair access.

Another seven schools (12 percent) offered limited wheelchair accessibility, for a total of 47 percent of participating schools that have limited or no access for students reliant upon a wheelchair. And in case you’re wondering what limited accessibility consists of, in some cases access is limited to the first floor of a building or exists “for some grades only.”

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, six of the 57 D.C. voucher schools (11 percent) were not accredited for 2014-2015 while another seven (12 percent) had their accreditation listed as “in progress” at the time.

One of the D.C. voucher schools with an accreditation in progress was the Academia de la Recta Porta International, which is squeezed between rundown storefronts. It consists of just two classrooms.

The school’s music program, The Washington Post reported in 2012, includes a keyboard and a drum. The facility has no gym, so students must go two miles away to a recreation center for exercise. There is no library. The institution also shares space with a religious organization called New Dimensions Kingdom Min­i­stries.

Despite these bleak realities – and the fact that studies revealed numerous shortcomings with the scheme – many federal lawmakers want to reauthorize the D.C. voucher program, which is set to expire this year. On Oct. 21, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to fund the program with $20 million annually through 2021. The vote was 240-191. The only new regulation added is that from now on, participating private schools will have to secure accreditation within five years, but even that requirement is limited by an additional one-year grace period. A companion bill was pending in the Senate, but has not yet passed. 

Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to Washington, D.C. There are currently private school voucher and tuition tax credit programs in 28 states. At this time last year, that number was 23.

Americans United opposes school vouchers primarily because they are an opportunity for private, religious schools to get a government-funded bailout. After all, nearly two-thirds of the D.C. voucher schools participating in 2014-2015 were faith based.

If you value public education and church-state separation, “School Choice Week” is a great time to let your legislators know how you feel about vouchers. Don’t let a minority of well-funded, well-organized interest groups get their way just because they make a lot of noise.