May 2021 Church & State Magazine | Featured

In the United States, 90% of children attend public schools, institutions that are all too often under-funded, under-supported and under-valued.

Even as our public schools struggle, legislators in many states are promoting plans to divert money into the coffers of private schools, which are free to discriminate in admitting students and hiring staff and which aren’t accountable to the public.

This year, efforts to fund private, mostly religious schools through vouchers were especially pronounced, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on schools and the Supreme Court’s Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue ruling last summer that required states with private school voucher programs to include religious schools.

In response to the proliferation of private school voucher bills, Americans United launched a new campaign designed to buttress support for public funds for public schools and explain why instituting taxpayer-funded voucher plans for private religious schools is bad for our children’s education.

The campaign centerpiece is a video called “Free to Be Me” featuring several teenagers. It emphasizes the diverse, multicultural nature of public schools and highlights the forms of discrimination that are often practiced by voucher-funded private religious schools. 

Accompanying the video is a new website, stopschoolvouchers.org.

The campaign is funded by the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, based in North Carolina. Founder Todd Stiefel is a long-term local church-state activist and former AU National Advisory Council member.

The campaign called attention to specific private school voucher bills moving through several states, such as North Carolina’s HB 32, which would expand funding and student eligibility for voucher programs. And although the legislature passed a massive expansion of these programs just last year, HB 32 would transfer another $160 million away from public schools to private, mostly religious schools over the next nine years.

“North Carolina has become an important battleground for church-state separation,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “At a time when public schools are facing unprecedented challenges to serve students in the midst of a pandemic, it is unjust and unfair to divert much-needed funding to private schools.”

Public schools are open to all students regardless of ability, religion, race, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other factor. But public funds are being redirected to private schools in North Carolina under the guise of “Opportunity Scholarships.” Those schools often promote religiously based interpretations of science, civics and history, and discriminate against students who are LGBTQ, have a disability or don’t observe the school’s preferred religious practices.  

Private religious schools also are permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring decisions. Under the “ministerial exception,” broadened last summer by the U.S. Supreme Court, religious institutions are freed from obeying civil rights and anti-discrimination laws when they hire and employ certain employees, impacting teachers and staff at private religious schools. 

“We are so grateful to Todd Stiefel for helping us share this message about private school vouchers in North Carolina and other states,” Laser said. “At the end of the day, church-state separation is about equality: ensuring that all people, whether they practice a specific religion or not, are treated the same, regardless of their beliefs. North Carolinians must let their legislators know that they want their taxes to fund the one educational system that is free and open to every child – the public schools.”

Other states with voucher bills that Americans United’s Public Policy Department has been busy opposing this year include Georgia, West Virginia, Kan­sas, Arizona, Kentucky, Florida, Illinois, Connecticut, Missouri and Minnesota.

Some have already passed. In West Virginia, a voucher plan became law after lawmakers scaled back the price tag. Some Republican legislators initially balked at the program after learning it would cost more than $100 million per year. The bill was sent back to a committee for more study and refashioned with the vouchers reduced from $4,600 to $3,000.

Kentucky lawmakers also passed a voucher plan, approving it over the veto of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. (Kentucky is one of six states that allow a simple majority to override a governor’s veto.) These new voucher programs in Kentucky and West Virginia are the first ever in those states, and West Virginia’s is now the most expansive in the country.

Other proposals faltered. New Hamp­­shire legislators tabled a voucher bill that would have extended taxpayer subsidies to patrons of private schools and homeschoolers, noting that its price tag – at least $100 million annually – was too high. Legislators in Arkansas also rejected a voucher-like tax credit bill. In Georgia, three voucher bills were introduced, but only one passed and that measure expands an existing program aimed at students with disabilities. Voucher bills also failed in Rhode Island, Kansas and Idaho.

Americans United’s new site pulls together some telling statistical data, including:

• 67% of private schools nationwide are religious.

• In the last 19 years, officials in Georgia have fully funded their public schools just two times.

• In Florida, 53% of private voucher schools deny admission to or expel students who are LGBTQ.

• Indiana ran a deficit of $53 million in 2015-16 to support voucher schools.

• In North Carolina, $26 million was wasted in 2020 on overfunding of private schools through a voucher plan.

• Only 22% of students in voucher schools in Georgia are students of color, while 60% of Georgia’s public schools are.

The site also links to a toolkit prepared by the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), an umbrella group consisting of more than 50 education, civic, civil rights and religious organizations that support the use of public funds for public schools. Americans United co-chairs NCPE.

The toolkit contains information about the different types of voucher programs, a history of vouchers and an explanation of leading Supreme Court cases in this area.

NCPE’s toolkit also lists eight reasons to oppose vouchers. They are: vouchers undermine our country’s commitment to public education; vouchers do not improve student achievement; vouchers do not provide the same accountability to taxpayers as public schools; taxpayer-funded vouchers violate the principle of religious freedom; vouchers fund discrimination with taxpayer dollars; vouchers increase school segregation; vouchers harm students who need appropriate resources; and vouchers do not save taxpayers money.

The toolkit also discusses the pitfalls of allowing vouchers to gain a foothold. Once passed, these programs are incredibly difficult to dislodge, no matter how ineffective they may be. For example, the U.S. Con­gress passed a voucher program for Wash­ington, D.C.,  in 2003 that was pitched as a five-year “experiment.” The program is plagued with problems, including schools of low quality. Despite several government studies demonstrating that the plan has been ineffective and has done nothing to boost student achievement, this “experiment” remains in place 17 years later.

In other areas, voucher programs have started out modestly and then ballooned. Florida’s tax credit “scholarship” program was launched in 2001. At the time, it was limited to low-income students. But the legislature kept expanding eligibility. The plan has ended up draining nearly $1 billion from public schools.

Discrimination is also a problem at voucher schools. Under voucher plans, taxpayer funding flows to private religious schools that can fire or refuse to hire teachers and staff who are the “wrong” religion, who get pregnant out of wedlock, who cohabitate or who are LGBTQ.

Similar discriminatory policies are applied to students. While federal law and some state provisions provide protection against certain forms of discrimination, religious schools are often exempt from these laws. As a result, young people have been denied admission to or expelled from private religious schools for being LGBTQ, for disagreeing with religious teachings and other reasons.

Finally, the toolkit notes that the American people want a fully funded public school system that works for everyone, not vouchers. It notes that every time voters in the states have had the opportunity to vote directly on vouchers through ballot referenda, they have rejected these schemes, often by large margins. (See “The People Have Spoken,” January 2019 Church & State.)

The entire toolkit is available at the stopschoolvouchers.org website. Click on the “Private School Vouchers” tab at the top of the page, and under “Resources,” click on “National Coalition for Public Education Toolkit.”

Americans United urges you to take advantage of these resources and to add your name to the petition opposing vouchers at stopschoolvouchers.org.