February 2011 Church & State | Featured

Supporters of voucher subsidies make claims about them that fail to stand up to scrutiny. Here are the facts about vouchers and “school choice.” Use this information to write to members of Congress and state legislators as well as letters to the editor.

1. Vouchers undermine religious liberty:

The vast majority of private schools are run by religious groups. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 76 percent of private schools have a religious affiliation. Over 80 percent of students attending private schools are enrolled in religious institutions. Most of these religious schools seek to indoctrinate as well as educate. They integrate religion throughout their curriculum and often require all students to receive religious instruction and attend religious services. Thus, there is no way to prevent publicly funded vouchers from paying for these institutions’ religious activities and education.

In other words, vouchers force Americans to pay taxes to support religion. This runs counter to the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. In America, all religious activities should be supported with voluntary contributions.

James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and other Founders strongly supported the separation of church and state and opposed taxation to support religion. As Ben Franklin succinctly put it: “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, ‘tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

2. Vouchers divert public money to unaccountable private schools:

School vouchers are little more than a backdoor way for the government to subsidize religious and other private schools. Under most voucher bills, private schools can take taxpayer money and still deny admission to any student they choose. Unlike public schools, private schools can and do discriminate against students based on various criteria, including religion, disability, economic background, academic record, English language ability or disciplinary history. Public funds should pay only for public schools that are open to all children and accountable to the people.

Private schools are also free to impose religious criteria on teachers and staff. Teachers at religious schools have been fired for having the “wrong” views about religion, for marrying someone of another faith, for getting divorced, for being gay and even for taking public stands that conflict with the church’s view. This may be legal, but it shouldn’t be subsidized by taxpayers.

3. Vouchers violate many state constitutional provisions:

Voucher advocates say that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that Cleveland’s voucher program did not violate the church-state provisions of the U.S. Constitution. This is true, but the advocates overlook an important fact: The Zelman case did not address state constitutional issues. Some three dozen states have church-state provisions in their constitutions that are even stronger than the U.S. Constitution. These provisions often more explicitly bar taxpayer money from being used to fund religious schools and education. Private school vouchers would likely be unconstitutional in most states – and some state courts have already ruled that they are.

4. The people do not support vouchers:

Americans have repeatedly expressed opposition to vouchers in public opinion polls. More tellingly, when people are given an opportunity to vote directly on vouchers through ballot referenda, they always reject the concept – usually by wide margins. Since 1967, voters in 23 states have rejected vouchers and other forms of tax aid to religious schools at the ballot box.

5. Vouchers do not improve student academic performance:

According to multiple studies of the District of Columbia, Milwaukee and Cleveland school voucher programs, the targeted population does not perform better in reading and math than students in public schools. The U.S. Department of Education studies of the D.C. program show that the students using vouchers to attend private schools do not believe that their voucher school is better or safer than the public school they left.

The study also showed that over a period of four years, there was no statistically significant difference between students who were offered a voucher and those who were not in their aspirations for future schooling, engagement in extracurricular activities, frequency of doing homework, attendance at school, reading for enjoyment or tardiness rates. In fact, students who participated in the program may actually have been more likely to be absent from school. Likewise, there was no significant difference in the student-teacher ratios in their classrooms or the availability of before-and after-school programs in their schools.

6. Vouchers do not improve opportunities for children from low-income families:

Vouchers do little to help the poor. The payments often do not cover the entire cost of tuition or other mandatory fees for private schools. Thus, only families with the money to cover the cost of the rest of the tuition, uniforms, transportation, books and other supplies can use the vouchers. In Cleveland, the majority of families who were granted a voucher but did not use it cited the additional costs as the reason they could not use the voucher. Vouchers actually hurt low-income families by undermining the public schools they rely on.

7. Vouchers do not save taxpayer money:

Vouchers do not decrease education costs. Instead, tax money that would ordinarily go to public schools now pays for vouchers, thus harming public schools. A 1999 study of Cleveland’s program showed that the public schools from which students left for private voucher schools were spread throughout the district. The loss of a few students at a school does not reduce fixed costs such as teacher salaries, textbooks and supplies and utilities and maintenance costs. Public schools run the risk of losing state funding to pay for vouchers without being able to cut their overall operating costs. In addition, voucher programs cost the state money to administer. In Milwaukee, which has been disproportionately burdened in a statewide voucher funding scheme, the city has had to raise property taxes several times since the voucher program began in order to ensure adequate funding for the city’s schools.

8. Vouchers do not increase education choice:

Voucher programs do not increase “choice” for parents because it’s the private schools that will ultimately decide whether to admit a student. These institutions are not required to give parents the information necessary to determine whether the school is meeting their children’s needs. Under voucher programs, private schools are often not required to test students, publish curriculum or meet many other standards. Even when legislatures have attempted to mandate accountability standards in voucher programs, private schools have not done what was required of them.

9. Vouchers lead to private schools of questionable quality:

In Milwaukee and Cleveland, the availability of vouchers led con artists to create fly-by-night schools in order to bilk the public purse. One Milwaukee school was run by a man with a long criminal record. In Cleveland, one school operated out of a dilapidated building with inadequate heat and no fire alarms. Another school “educated” children by having them watch videos all day.

Fundamentalist Christian academies have been growing in number. Many of these schools offer education far outside the mainstream. They teach creationism in lieu of evolution, offer a discredited “Christian nation” approach to American history and put forth controversial ideas about other religions, the role of women in society, gay rights and other issues. These schools may legally teach this way, but taxpayers should not be expected to pay for it.

10. Vouchers distract from the real issue of reform:

Voucher plans usually allow a small percentage of children to leave public schools for enrollment in private schools. This does nothing for the large percentage of youngsters left behind. Most public schools do a very good job; those that don’t should be fixed, not abandoned. Vouchers become an excuse for politicians to dodge issues like adequate funding, class size, teacher training and curriculum reform.

Ninety percent of American children attend public schools. Our focus should be on fully funding and improving this system, not siphoning money into private systems.