April 2012 Church & State | People & Events

An attempt to add private school vouchers to a national education bill was derailed recently in the U.S. House of Representatives.

House members are working on a series of bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), legislation that provides federal support for public schools. Americans United and its allies became concerned over a section of one of the bills that could have authorized voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools.

Americans United pointed to the Local Academic Flexible Grant, a part of the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act (H.R. 3990), saying it could establish voucher funding. The original bill summary stated that “private or public entities could utilize these funds to support programs that will help increase student achievement, including scholarship and tutoring programs.” In the context of public education legislation, “scholarship” is almost always a code word for private school vouchers.

The National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), a collection of more than 50 education, civil rights and religious organizations, wrote to U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) in February and asked him to remove the voucher language from the bill.

“Vouchers run counter to the very purpose of ESEA,” observed the groups. “Instead of providing equal access to high quality education or setting high standards and accountability, voucher programs have proven ineffective, lack accountability to taxpayers and deprive all students of rights provided to public school students.”

The NCPE, which is co-chaired by Americans United, noted that multiple studies of existing voucher programs have shown that students offered vouchers do not perform better in reading and math than students in public schools.

The House Education and Workforce Committee met in late February to begin marking up the legislation. The troubling sections of H.R. 3990 were amended, with language being tightened to make it clear that funds can only benefit students who remain in the public school system.

“We monitor all legislation in Congress very carefully to make sure it doesn’t undermine church-state separation,” said AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett. “I’m pleased we were able to head off this voucher proposal before it got too far.”