Public Schools

Americans United’s Agenda To Restore Religious Freedom: Support Public Education

  Elise Helgesen Aguilar

Editor’s Note: This week and next, “The Wall of Separation” blog will run a series of special posts examining the policy proposals in AU’s “Agenda to Restore & Protect Religious Freedom.” Developed by Americans United’s Public Policy Department, the agenda lists 10 proposals the incoming administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris can take to undo the damage done to church-state separation during the Trump years.

One of the top 10 priorities listed in AU’s Agenda to Restore & Protect Religious Freedom urges the Biden-Harris Administration to support public schools and oppose taxpayer funding for private, religious schools.

Public schools are a cornerstone of our diverse society – they welcome students from every background, race, ability and religious belief and bring them together under the same roof. In fact, our public schools educate 90% of our nation’s students. Private school vouchers, however, undermine our public school system and divert public funding away from our public schools to pay for the education of a few select students in private, often religious schools.

Private school voucher programs force taxpayers to pay for religious education. Many private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers teach religious curriculum and even anti-LGBTQ curriculum. Private voucher schools also do not provide the same rights and protections for students including those in federal civil rights laws, or the same free speech and religious freedom protections under the First Amendment.

In fact, many of these private schools also discriminate against students for a variety of reasons, including based on the students’ or their families’ religious beliefs, and some private schools condition admissions on adherence to certain religious principles. The outright discrimination that takes place in private voucher schools comes as no surprise as voucher programs are historically rooted in racist attempts to allow white students to evade integration orders in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Even today, national data show that private schools tend to be more segregated than similarly situated public schools and enroll higher populations of white students compared to public schools.

Yet despite the many failings of private school voucher programs, the Trump administration, and in particular, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, sought to prioritize and promote private school vouchers for religious schools at every turn. The Trump-DeVos administration even exploited pandemic relief efforts to do so. On the whole, DeVos’ efforts were largely unsuccessful, as she was unable to garner enough support in Congress to enact any new federally funded voucher programs. However, there are policies and guidance the Trump administration put into place to encourage school privatization that must be reversed by the Biden-Harris administration. The new administration must ensure federal dollars fund public schools, not private and religious schools.

In particular, we call on the Biden-Harris administration to withhold funding from the federally funded Washington, D.C., voucher program. This program has been shown to be ineffective and unaccountable. In fact, in the more than 15 years since the program began, there is no evidence to show that students using vouchers perform better academically than those who do not, and in some years, students’ achievement scores have actually decreased. Although this is a program that has been reauthorized by Congress through 2023, the Biden-Harris administration must take the lead and ensure the program is phased out by receiving no new funding.

We are encouraged by the commitment the incoming administration has shown to supporting our nation’s public schools. We look forward to working in the next Congress and administration to ensure our federal funds stay in public schools and are not diverted to private, religious schools.

You can help support church-state separation and public education by joining Americans United.

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