Public Schools

The Trump Administration’s Backdoor Voucher Scheme Threatens Public Education And Religious Freedom

  Elise Helgesen Aguilar

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos held a press conference yesterday to announce her support for a new federal voucher program. She was joined by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) who just filed bills to create the “Education Freedom Scholarship” program.  

This new voucher program would provide a dollar-for-dollar federal tax credit for individuals and businesses who donate to organizations that provide vouchers for students to attend private schools. This legislation would redirect $5 billion of taxpayer dollars each year away from the public treasury where it could be used to fund public schools, and instead fund private, religious schools. Not only does this voucher scheme undermine the public schools that serve 90 percent of students nationwide, but it threatens religious freedom by using taxpayer dollars to fund religious education.

At the press conference, Cruz repeated a phrase he’s often falsely used to promote voucher schemes: that “school choice is the civil rights issue of the twenty-first century.”

Civil rights are certainly an issue with voucher programs, but not in the way Cruz is implying. Private school voucher programs endanger the civil rights of students using vouchers by funding schools that do not provide the same rights and protections as public schools, such as those in Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

And, students who attend private schools using vouchers are stripped of the First Amendment, due process and other constitutional and statutory rights guaranteed to them in public schools. In addition, private school voucher programs suffer other flaws, as well: They lack accountability, prop up poor quality schools and in many states have been shown to harm students’ academic achievement. This is why Americans United as part of the National Coalition for Public Education denounced this voucher proposal.

DeVos has been a longtime voucher proponent. However, after two years in office, she’s yet to propose much in the way of policy. Maybe that’s because the groups traditionally supportive of voucher programs can’t seem to agree on how to create a federal voucher program. In fact, voucher proponents have even already come out in opposition to the Cruz/Byrne bill. And, it’s unlikely that the bill will garner enough support to pass in this Congress.

It’s possible that this proposal is in actuality a reaction to the Internal Revenue Service’s proposed rulemaking that would close the current loophole in federal tax law that allows donors to state tax credit voucher programs to financially benefit from those donations – a change that AU supports. Regardless of the motivation, AU will continue to monitor and oppose any proposals that would create or expand private school voucher programs.

You can take action by telling your legislators that public dollars should stay in public schools, and not flow to private school voucher schemes. 

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