Republicans are for school vouchers because they want to privatize public education, turn education into a money making venture, and use taxpayer money to fund religious schools. Some Democrats support vouchers because of a genuine desire to improve education. They want vouchers for innovative schools with alternative curriculums, creative teachers, and enhanced learning environments. Yet, the truth is, this very small number of truly wonderful innovative private schools will serve a tiny percentage of children and will do nothing to improve public education for the majority.
The answer is finding and adopting best practices within the public and private educational system, not siphoning off money and resources to the private sector. Within public and private educational systems there are plenty of outstanding schools that less successful public schools can emulate. Finding ways to disseminate and integrate those practices is one key to improving public education. Vouchers and privitization are not the answer because ninety percent of American children attend public schools. A truly progressive view aspires to improve education for all children through better public policy, not through privatization of public taxpayer money.
And it’s not like voucher schools are all that successful. Last November, NEAtoday.org reported that 150 students in Milwaukee left their voucher schools, their parents opting to return them to Milwaukee Public Schools. The voucher schools had failed to provide for kids with learning or physical disabilities, or offer after-school programs, or offer art, music and physical education classes.
Since the state legislature created Milwaukee’s school voucher program more than 30 years ago, the program has paid for thousands of city students to attend private schools, of which 85 percent are religious. More than a billion dollars has been siphoned from the public school system to pay their tuition, including more than $50 million this year alone. But studies have shown that students don’t do any better in those private schools. In fact, it’s not such a great investment for the public—or those parents.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State offers a very good list of 10 reasons why private school vouchers should be rejected. The following is an edited and reworded version of the list. I encourage you to read the entire list and the full arguments here.
1. Vouchers force taxpayers to support religion
According to the U.S. Department of Education, religious groups run 76 percent of all private schools. Over 80 percent of students attending private schools are enrolled in religious institutions, which integrate religion throughout their curriculum and often require all students to receive religious instruction and attend religious services. Thus, publicly funded vouchers are paying for these institutions’ religious activities and education.
2. Vouchers divert public money to unaccountable private schools
Under most voucher bills, private schools can take taxpayer money and still deny admission to any student they choose. They are free to discriminate against the disabled, or children from other countries. Private schools are also free to impose religious criteria on teachers and staff, and discriminate against gays, people of color, or women. In other words, a voucher system forces taxpayers to subsidize discrimination that would be illegal in a public school system.
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 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. Americans 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. 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.
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.
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. 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, which are on the rise, 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. Taxpayers should not be expected to pay for this.
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.