Dispelling the Myth of “School Choice”

School vouchers are taxpayer-funded scholarships for private school tuition, most of which benefit religiously segregated schools. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia currently fund voucher programs. These states include: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont and Wisconsin. The constitutionality of several of these programs is currently under judicial review. Still, efforts are underway to expand existing voucher programs, and many proponents of voucher funding are actively seeking to implement such funding schemes in other states.

Scholarship tax credit programs have become a model for states that wish to subsidize private and religious education, particularly in states with a constitutional ban on vouchers. As of April 2014, fourteen states have tuition tax credit programs; Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia.

Below is a partial list of reasons why school vouchers are bad for students, bad for public schools, bad for education and bad for our nation:

1. School vouchers violate the constitutional principle of separation of state and church by providing taxpayer support for religion.

2. School voucher schemes allow religious schools to inculcate children with religion, including the instruction of creationism, using taxpayer dollars.

3. Americans do not support school voucher schemes.

4. School voucher schemes do not result in better academic performance.

5. School voucher schemes lead to unaccountable schools, fraud and abuse.

6. Voucher schemes fund discrimination.

7. School voucher programs encourage segregation.

8. School vouchers do not benefit low-income students attending failing public schools, contrary to claims.

9. Voucher schemes hurt public schools and distract from education reform.

10. “School choice” is not about choice.


1. School vouchers violate the constitutional principle of separation of state and church by providing taxpayer support for religion.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute . . . where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference[.]”
— John F. Kennedy’s speech to Greater Houston Ministerial Association, 1960

Voucher schemes have become a means of circumventing the constitutional requirement of separation of state and church that prohibits the government from funding religious education.

The majority of private schools, including those that accept vouchers, are sectarian. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 68% of private schools are religious and account for 80.2% of private school students. [1] In many state voucher programs, the numbers are skewed even more drastically in favor of the sectarian. For example:

  • In Wisconsin, 90.57% of schools participating in the state’s three voucher programs are religious and 89.31% of Wisconsin voucher students attend religious schools. [2]
  • In North Carolina, religious institutions account for 90% of the private schools that receive taxpayer-funded vouchers. [3]

Of the 13 states with voucher programs, only Maine prohibits religious schools from receiving taxpayer funds.

Most sectarian schools incorporate religion into their curriculum. Many require students to attend religious services, make religious commitments, or hire only teachers of a specific faith.

Voucher schemes are a backdoor means of funding religious schools with taxpayer money, undermining the principle of separation of state and church on which our country was founded. It is a cornerstone of our secular republic that citizens should not be taxed to support religion. Many immigrants came to this continent to avoid being coerced by their government into converting, or into paying taxes and tithes to denominations from which they dissented. Thomas Jefferson’s landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, passed in 1786, guaranteed that no citizen “shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever,” including religious seminaries. Many state constitutions replicate this wording in their Bill of Rights.

Voucher programs not only repugnantly force citizens to fund and support religious institutions, but the actual indoctrination of students. Meanwhile, vouchers divert precious public funds from our secular public schools, which must scrupulously avoid proselytizing a captive audience. More than 65 years of Supreme Court precedent bars religious instruction, ritual or prayer in our public schools. Yet under voucher schemes, taxpayers are compelled to fund such instruction, ritual and prayer.

Voucher schemes primarily benefit Roman Catholic schools. Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination in the U.S. at about 24%, yet the majority of citizens identify as some form of Protestant. Still, the Catholic Church’s vast network of established parochial schools ensures that the Catholic Church is the largest beneficiary of voucher schemes. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, objecting to Catholic children mingling with non-Catholics, has sought public funding for its religiously segregated education since the late 19th century. Although it has been unsuccessful getting the government to directly fund religious education, the Catholic hierarchy has made inroads, successfully seeking taxpayer money to be used for transportation, textbooks, and supplemental education. The advent of voucher programs has helped keep many parochial schools afloat. [4] Catholic school supporters credit school voucher programs and other “choice” schemes for increased Catholic school enrollment.

Religion should be supported by private contributions, not public coffers.

2. School voucher schemes allow religious schools to inculcate children with religion, including the instruction of creationism, with taxpayer dollars.

The most deplorable aspect of state voucher schemes is that they allow private religious schools to take public money and not educate students. In states with voucher programs, taxpayers spend millions of dollars on scores of religious (mostly Christian) schools that then use the money to indoctrinate students while depriving them of a comprehensive education. In fact, most of these schools are more interested in inculcating children with religion than educating them.

Observers of voucher schools in Milwaukee have called into question the poor qualifications of teachers, use of outdated books, and whether some schools have any curriculum at all. Some voucher schools have science curriculum that claims to refute “the man-made idea of evolution” and health class instruction for seventh graders about the “sin” of homosexuality. The influence of religion on curriculum is hardly limited to science texts. Sex education based on Christian principles fails to educate students, focusing instead on abstinence. Citizens support public education because it is a public good. That support goes out the window when schools are no longer educating but instead inculcating dogma.

Some voucher schools reportedly use outdated textbooks, if they provide textbooks at all. For those fundamentalist Christian schools that do follow an established curriculum, the most popular textbooks are those produced by A Beka Book, Bob Jones University Publishing, and Accelerated Christian Education. These evangelical Protestant publishing companies incorporate Christian “values” into lesson plans, often skewering political and historical fact in favor of a narrative that conforms to the views of the Religious Right. [5]

Don’t know much about history…

  • “A few slave owners were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slaveholders treated their slaves well.” Timothy Keesee and Mark Sidwell, United States History for Christian Schools, 2nd ed. (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book, 1991), p. 219.
  • “To help them endure the difficulties of slavery, God gave Christian slaves the ability to combine the African heritage of song with the dignity of Christian praise. Through the Negro spiritual, the slaves developed the patience to wait on the Lord and discovered the truest freedom is from the bondage of sin. By first giving them their spiritual freedom, God prepared slaves for their coming physical freedom.” Michael R. Lowman, George Thompson, and Kurt Grussendorf, United States History: Heritage of Freedom, 2nd ed. (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book, 1996), p. 219.
  • The Vietnam War divided the country into the “hawks who supported the fight against Communism, and doves, who were soft on Communism.” United States History: Heritage of Freedom, p. 633.
  • Describing Roe v. Wade, an A Beka government textbook reads: “Ignoring 3,500 years of Judeo-Christian civilization, religion, morality, and law, the Burger Court held that an unborn child is was not a living person but rather the ‘property’ of the mother (much like slaves were considered property in the 1857 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford).” William R. Bowen et al., American Government in Christian Perspective, 2nd ed. (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book, 1997), p. 1514.
  • “Africa is a continent with many needs. It is still in need of the gospel. Many people have gone there as missionaries but the continent is so vast, and spirit worship and the Muslim religion so strong, that only a small percentage of Africans claim to be Christians. […] Only about ten percent of Africans can read and write. In some areas the mission schools have been shut down by Communists who have taken over the government…” Old World History and Geography in Christian Perspective, 3rd ed. (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book, 2004), p. 215.
  • “God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ.” Kurt S. Grussendorf, Michael R. Lowman, and Brian S. Ashbaugh, America: Land That I Love, Teacher Edition (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book, 1994), p. 220.

Don’t know much biology…

Despite long established Supreme Court precedent prohibiting the teaching of religious creationism in public schools, voucher schemes use taxpayer dollars to inculcate American children with the scientific absurdity that Earth is only a few thousand years old.

Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology, but you wouldn’t know it from flipping through the biology sections of these textbooks. Creationism is included in the science curriculum of each of the aforementioned texts, all of which lack any material in conflict with young earth creationism.

  • “Bible-believing Christians cannot accept any evolutionary interpretation.” Life Science with Student Activities, 3rd ed. (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 2007), p. 134.
  • “Dinosaurs and humans were definitely on the earth at the same time and may have even lived side by side within the past few thousand years.” Life Science with Student Activities, 3rd ed. (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 2007), p. 134.

Evolution has been the subject of legal debate in the United States since the Scopes Trial of 1925, a Tennessee case in which John Thomas Scopes was found guilty of a crime for teaching evolution.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) invalidated an Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution, holding that the First Amendment prohibits the government from tailoring curriculum based on any particular religious sect or doctrine. In another Arkansas case, McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982) the Court invalidated another statute that required the teaching of “creation science” and “evolution science,” noting that creationism was not in fact a science. In Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), the Court overturned a statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools unless accompanied by “creation science,” holding that the act impermissibly advanced religious belief in a supernatural being as the creator of humankind. The Court also noted that conditioning evolution instruction on the inclusion of creationism undermined the goal of providing children with a comprehensive science education.

Despite this long-established Supreme Court precedent prohibiting the teaching of religious creationism in public schools, voucher schools are permitted to teach creationism on the taxpayer’s dime. Teaching creationism is illegal, yet voucher schemes have become a means of sidestepping the laws governing public instruction of evolution.

Creationism is not science. When public money is spent on education, one would expect it to pay for an education. Instead voucher school students are being “taught” nonsense as science. Creationism instruction is dumbing down our country. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 42% of U.S. citizens reject evolution and subscribe to the creationist view of human origins. [6] Teaching creationism as science leaves students at a disadvantage when competing for jobs in the global economy, and causes the United States to lag behind the rest of the world in research, scientific growth and international standing.

Zack Kopplin, a 2013 FFRF student activist award recipient, has done amazing work tracking the number of voucher schools that teach creationism. Click here to see a map of voucher schools that accept public funds and teach creationism.

For more information about keeping evolution in science classrooms (and keeping creationism out), visit The National Center for Science Education.

3. Americans do not support school voucher schemes.

According to a 2013 PDK/ Gallup Poll, “Seventy percent of Americans oppose private school vouchers – the highest level of opposition to vouchers ever recorded in this survey.” [7] Specifically, Americans reject the use of taxpayer dollars to support private education.

The truth is that American voters have repeatedly rejected schemes to allow taxpayer money to fund private schools.

The most common effort to expand voucher schemes is to repeal or amend state constitutional amendments (aka Blaine Amendments) to eliminate existing prohibitions against aid to parochial schools. However, American voters overwhelmingly rejected such amendments in New York (1967), Oregon (1972), Washington (1975), Alaska (1976), Massachusetts (1986), and Florida (2012).

American voters similarly rejected voucher schemes in Maryland (1972), Michigan (1978), Colorado (1992), California (1993), Washington (1996), California (2000), Michigan (2000) and Utah (2007).

Voters rejected tuition tax credits in the District of Columbia (1981), Utah (1988), Oregon (1990), and Colorado (1998).

Voters rejected tuition reimbursement for parochial schools in Nebraska (1970).

Dozens and dozens of leading national groups — from educators, civic, union, civil liberties, religious, children’s advocacy, feminist — are on record opposing vouchers. Click here for more information about organizations that oppose vouchers.

By contrast, voucher proponents are typically Religious Right proponents with deep pockets, including:

  • Sam Walton
  • Charles & David Koch
  • Bradley Foundation

Conservative individuals and organizations have pumped millions of dollars into pro-voucher lobbying efforts. In 2013 alone, the Walton Family Foundation donated $6 million to Alliance for School Choice, a Washington-based pro-voucher lobbying group, expressing hope that the donation would “double the number of students using tax dollars to pay private tuition.” [8] The Koch brothers have spent millions lobbying for the creation of voucher schemes in states without them. [9] The Koch-financed lobby group Americans for Prosperity backs “school choice” schemes and is a major financer of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the organization behind most federal and state “school choice” legislation. [10] Between 2001 and 2013 the Bradley Foundation gave $31 million to groups promoting voucher expansion in Wisconsin. [11]

4. School vouchers do not result in better academic performance.

Although performance results are somewhat mixed, most studies indicate that when compared with similar public school students, voucher recipients perform on the same level or worse, belying the promise of scholastic improvement.

In Wisconsin, voucher school students have consistently performed worse than public school students on state exams. There are entire voucher schools in Milwaukee that have only one or two students who test proficient in reading or math. The results of a 2012 state standardized achievement test reports that students attending private voucher schools in Milwaukee and Racine scored lower than their public-school counterparts in Milwaukee Public Schools and the Racine Unified School District. [12] Results from state reading and math exams from [the 2013-14 school year] showed that only 15.5% of Milwaukee voucher students tested proficient in math compared to 19.0% of Milwaukee public school students and 48.6% of students statewide. In reading, the results for voucher schools were 11.9% compared with 14.7% in Milwaukee public schools and 36.6% statewide.

Unfortunately academic performance is difficult to assess because private schools, including those that receive voucher funds, are not often held to the same standards as public schools.

Private schools often have no obligation to publish or share test scores or to report student progress to the state. Additionally, private schools may not use the same performance assessments that are administered to statewide public school students.

Where public school students are subject to standard testing, private school performance is not compared on the same scale. Essentially, voucher schemes create a two-tiered system whereby public and private school students are held to different standards, making it almost impossible to compare outcomes with accuracy.

Even high school graduation rates are not necessarily indicative of performance, despite the claims of some “school choice” proponents. When private schools set their own academic standards, it can be hard to tell whether those students would be equipped to graduate if held to the standards of the public school system. There have been cases where colleges, universities, and employers do not recognize private school transcripts and diplomas due to a school’s lack of accreditation. [13]

When government money is used to educate students, those students should be held to consistent standards.

5. School voucher schemes lead to unaccountable schools, fraud and abuse.

School voucher schemes operate to remove governmental regulations from the education system. Many private schools, including religious schools, are run with little or no public or governmental oversight.

Religious voucher schools may have few or no credentials. In Florida, for instance, private schools need not be accredited by the state or any particular agency. Nearly two-thirds of private schools in North Carolina are unaccredited.

Even those voucher programs that do include accreditation requirements are suspect. For example, not all of the organizations accepted by the state are dedicated education accrediting agencies. Wisconsin law requires that schools participating in the voucher program obtain accreditation by a private school accrediting agency. However, included among approved accrediting entities is “the diocese or archdiocese within which a private school is located[.]” Wis. Stats. §118.60(1)(ab).

Furthermore, existing accreditation requirements have not prevented subpar schools from operating and siphoning government funds. The Milwaukee Institute for Academic Achievement, which operated out of Grace United Church of Christ in Milwaukee, received $294,722 from Wisconsin taxpayers before being terminated from the voucher program after just one year. The school was reportedly understaffed and presented dangerous conditions for the children in attendance. School Administrator Corey Daniels was accused of hitting a student with a belt. [14] Despite this grim report, the school apparently received pre-accreditation from the Association for Christian Teachers and Schools, included among Wisconsin’s list of approved accrediting agencies. [15]

Similarly, private school teachers are held to different standards than public school teachers. While public school teachers are usually required to have at minimum a bachelors or masters degree in education, many private schools have no degree or certification requirements at all.

What’s worse, private schools do not always rely on teachers. Many voucher schools in Louisiana deliver instruction mainly through DVDs and workbooks, not trained teachers. [16]

Horror stories abound of voucher students placed in deplorable private school settings. Some schools are set up in rented church rooms, or old storefronts. Students are crammed into small classrooms; they often have no books, materials or curriculum. They may have no playground or space for physical activity.

When voucher programs exist, lax standards allow fly-by-night schools to pop up and operate. Fraud and abuse are rampant. There have been multiple instances of convicted felons serving as principals or administrators of voucher schools, and cases of fraud and embezzlement of funds are common. Some buildings used for schools were found so unsafe they were closed. Here are some specific examples of fraud and abuse in the Milwaukee voucher program:

  • Learning Bridges Kingdom Academy. The school, which is associated with Kingdom Faith Fellowship Church, took in more than $1.2 million over four years, despite the fact that it lacked any official accreditation. State test score results show very poor student performance – after two years in the program no Learning Bridges students were proficient in math or reading. [17]
  • The Washington Du Bois Christian Leadership Academy, which raked in more than $8.8 million in taxpayer dollars over eight years, interrupted the school year when it closed in December 2013. The school was dropped from the voucher program because it failed to meet reporting requirements, amid allegations that it filed applications and received money for nonexistent students. [18]
  • LifeSkills Academy received $2.3 million in state voucher money from 2008 until it shut down suddenly in mid-December 2013. According to a priest in charge of the building that housed school, the school’s operators moved out “in the dead of the night,” leaving families of students scrambling to find a new school. LifeSkills students had struggled with basic reading and math, with only one of the 56 students in grades 3-8 testing proficient in either subject on 2012 state exams. Department of Public Instruction records reveal that the school was removed from the National School Lunch Program in 2012 after serious allegations of noncompliance. Those included allegations that the school falsified records and served non-complaint meals such as ramen noodles and whole milk diluted with water. Despite their poor operation of the Milwaukee school, Taron and Rodney Monroe opened LifeSkills Academy II in Florida and bragged about their ability to get government grants for religious schools. [19] FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter alerting the Florida Department of Education to this fraud. [20]

To say that vouchers in Wisconsin have failed is an understatement. The Milwaukee program serves as a warning as to what happens when taxpayer money is given to private, mostly religious groups that are not answerable to taxpayers. In the last ten years, the state has given $139 million to voucher schools that were subsequently barred from the Milwaukee program for failing to meet requirements related to finances, accreditation, student safety and auditing, according to 2014 Wisconsin State Journal analysis. There have been numerous reports of substantial fraud. This includes reports of payments being given for nonexistent students, instructors teaching without college degrees, and school founders stealing money from school coffers. [21]

Where public funding goes, public accountability must follow.

It should be axiomatic that where public funds go, public accountability should follow. There are no assurances that voucher educators are answerable to the taxpaying citizens who ultimately write the checks. Private voucher schools are not governed by publicly elected school boards that answer to constituents. There are also no means for the public to review records, attend meetings, or otherwise gather information about school operations. The voucher system puts hundreds of millions of dollars at the hands of unaccountable private schools. This is a direct harm not only to taxpayers and the public, but also to our democratic republic.

6. Voucher schemes fund discrimination.

When public money is used to pay tuition at private sectarian schools, taxpayers support discrimination, in various guises.

Many religious schools participate in discriminatory hiring practices. Private schools are not necessarily beholden to free speech safeguards, nor are they required to provide due process for terminated employees. Private school teachers do not have the employment safeguards of teachers in the public school system. For teachers, the expansion of private schools through voucher schemes may result in depressed wages, and lack of employment benefits, including health and pension benefits.

Religious schools often have discriminatory admissions and other policies regarding students’ and teachers’ religious affiliation, sexuality and gender identity. Many religious schools require students and teachers to adhere to the tenets of their faith.

Voucher schemes use public tax dollars to disseminate religion-based hate. The attitude towards homosexuals in the curriculum of some voucher schools is particularly hostile. “These people [homosexuals] have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists,” reads one Bob Jones text. Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, 1998 – 1999 (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1998), p. 216. Another text makes repeated claims that homosexuals and abortion-rights proponents are “simply calling evil good.” Timothy Keesee, American Government for Christian Schools, Teacher Edition (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1998), p. 138.

Although some state voucher programs (including Wisconsin’s) prohibit voucher schools from discriminating against student applicants on the basis of religion, such anti-discrimination provisions are not always enforced. Schools have been accused of regularly violating anti-discrimination laws by refusing to admit students based on religion or by forcing students to participate in religious activities. By supporting voucher schemes, taxpayers fund this discrimination. [22]

7. School voucher programs encourage segregation.

As a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice wisely noted in one of the earliest cases keeping religion out of schools: “There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed.” Weiss v. District Board, 44 N.W. 967, 981 (Wis. 1890) (Orton, J., concurring). Districts with voucher schools will inherently become increasingly segregated on the basis of religion.

Racial profiling is sometimes difficult to assess, as private schools are not always required to share data related to the racial or economic make-up of their students. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice alleged that Louisiana’s state voucher program was exacerbating racial segregation in the state. [23]

The “choice” movement is predicated on the myth that because schools are “private” (don’t have to enroll all comers) they are somehow superior. This discriminatory enrollment appeals to elitist instincts, but it does not ensure superior results.

Some African-American leaders initially lauded the Milwaukee voucher program. Rightwing backers of vouchers window-dressed the voucher campaign by saying it was intended to benefit the poorest, minority students in the inner cities. Originally, Polly Williams, an African-American state legislator, became the frontispiece for the Milwaukee voucher movement, the “mother of school choice.” By 2001, she was an opponent of voucher school expansion, saying she had supported limited school choice as an experiment. “Our intent was never to destroy the public schools.” She became aware that the Bradley Foundation sought to use the initial low-income argument as a toe in the door to full-fledged voucher expansion, which she opposed. [24]

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has historically opposed school voucher plans that redirect public money to private schools. “We must always remember that public education is the reason that many of us are here,” said NAACP board member Leroy W. Warren Jr. at the 1997 NAACP national meeting that passed an anti-voucher resolution. “What vouchers will do for us is destroy public education and black people will suffer more and more.” [25]

The NAACP has consistently supported investments in our public schools that will benefit all students, not just potentially a few. School vouchers do not offer a collective benefit. Vouchers take critical resources away from our neighborhood public schools, the very schools that are attended by the vast majority of African American students. Furthermore, private and parochial schools are not required to observe federal nondiscrimination laws even if they receive funds through voucher programs. In fact, many voucher proposals often contain language specifically intended to circumvent civil rights laws, and many proponents insist voucher funding does not flow to the school but instead to the parent or student precisely to avoid any civil rights obligations. This specificity in language allows private institutions to discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, disability and language proficiency – and even merit, again, despite the fact that they are receiving taxpayer funds.[26]

8. School vouchers do not benefit low-income students attending failing public schools, contrary to claims.

Voucher schemes benefit private schools, not students. While touted as being designed to subsidize tuition for students at private schools, vouchers actually end up hurting poor and minority students by defunding public education as a whole. “Helping expand choices for poor children” has been a Trojan Horse argument. The real agenda is to fund parochial schools and defund public schools.

Although most state voucher schemes currently include income eligibility requirements, they do not always limit voucher recipients to low-income individuals.

Few voucher schemes require that students be attending a “failing” school or be struggling academically in order to qualify for voucher money. For instance, North Carolina’s voucher program, currently being challenged in the state’s highest court, does not require that students be enrolled at a “failing” school in order to qualify for voucher funds. Indiana’s voucher program offers assistance to public school students who aren’t failing in their public schools.

Some state voucher programs do not even require that students be attending a public school before they can qualify for vouchers. In other words, students may be eligible for publicly funded vouchers if they are already attending – and paying for – private school.

This is the case in Wisconsin, where 73% of the voucher students added in 2014 were already attending private schools, most of them religious. Many of these students are from families that could already afford private school, but became eligible to receive voucher money when state leaders raised income limits for families participating in the voucher programs. Others were already attending the private schools on private scholarships and now have their tuition paid by taxpayer-funded vouchers, freeing up resources for the private schools to extend scholarship opportunities to more students, expanding the private school’s capacity, and ultimately subsidizing the school’s religious mission.

This is also a problem in Georgia, which enacted a scholarship tax credit program in 2008. A state report found that between 2007 and 2009, private school enrollment only increased by one-third of one percent, indicating that most of the students receiving private school scholarships under the new tax credit program were already attending private school. In Georgia’s program, parents can qualify for a tax credit for donations made to scholarship organizations even if that money is used to pay for their own child’s private school tuition. [27]

9. Voucher schemes hurt public schools and distract from education reform.

In states with school vouchers, “school choice” funds compete with public school funds. Voucher schemes defund public schools and siphon taxpayer money to private and religious schools.

When a student is withdrawn from a public school, tax dollars follow that student to a private (typically parochial) school. Public school districts lose already diminished resources and the quality of education suffers. However, the loss of a student to a voucher school does not mean that school districts will see an equal reduction in costs. In fact, public schools must retain essential staff, provide transportation service, maintain building facilities, and provide an education to students with disabilities.

As mentioned previously, the Milwaukee voucher program serves as a warning as to what happens when taxpayer money is given to private, mostly religious groups that are not answerable to taxpayers. In the last ten years, Wisconsin has given $139 million to voucher schools that were subsequently barred from the Milwaukee program — $139 million that might otherwise have been dedicated to strengthening the public school system.

States should not incentivize private school attendance by offering private school tuition. Instead, the government should focus its efforts on improving the public education system and ensure access to quality education for all American school children.

10. “School choice” is not about choice.

“Choice” is a misnomer.

Not all struggling students have a choice. In many cases, with fewer vouchers than there is demand, districts hold lotteries to determine which students will qualify for vouchers. The United States is rooted in the concept of free, common schools, which provide all students with a quality education. Lotteries undermine this concept.

Not all private schools will accept vouchers. Some may not have the capacity for additional students. Some private schools may not want to charge less for tuition (to meet mandated tuition caps for vouchers). Some voucher programs, like those in Wisconsin, have been forced to adopt the safeguard of prohibiting private schools from charging tuition higher than the amount of the voucher. To accept voucher students, the school would have to limit its tuition charge to the voucher amount, but many private schools already receive more than that in yearly tuition, and have no incentive to lower their prices.

Some private schools don’t want to abide by regulations that (sometimes) come along with accepting government dollars, including religious and anti-discrimination requirements. This reluctance to accept even the most minimal oversight has contributed to the infamous start-up schools and fraud in Milwaukee (e.g., established schools won’t change their rules to accept vouchers, so new ones start up to take the money).

Furthermore, “choice” proponents often change their tune at the prospect of taxpayer funded non-Christian religious education. For instance, when the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans applied for funds under a 2012 Louisiana voucher program, Republican state Rep. Kenneth Havard objected to the school’s request, saying he opposed any bill that “will fund Islamic teaching.” Democratic Rep. Sam Jones lamented, “It’ll be the church of Scientology next year.” This despite the fact that millions of dollars had already been slated to go to Christian schools. [28]

Indeed, school voucher schemes cannot be limited to “mainstream” religious schools, but create precedent that ultimately cannot stop public funds from going to Muslim, Wiccan, even Satanic Temple schools. In fact, until Fall 2014 the Greensboro Islamic Academy was the leading recipient of school voucher funds in North Carolina, “although recent records provided by the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority show that the top recipient is now Raleigh’s Word of God Christian Academy, with Greensboro Islamic in second place having received $142,800 in taxpayer funds this year.” [29]

For more information about vouchers:

Written by Katherine Paige, FFRF Legal Fellow

[1] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Characteristics of Private Schools in the United States: Results from the 2011-12 Private School Universe Survey (Washington, DC: NCES, 2013), available at https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2013/2013316.pdf.

[2] FFRF compiled this data based on facts and figures provided by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, available at https://sms.dpi.wi.gov/choice_facts_statistics.

[3] Lindsay Wagner, Ninety Percent of Private Schools Receiving Taxpayer-Funded Vouchers Are Religious Institutions, N.C. POLICY WATCH, Oct. 9, 2014, available at http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2014/10/09/ninety-percent-of-private-schools-receiving-taxpayer-funded-vouchers-are-religious-institutions/.

[4] Steve Weatherbe, Vouchers Help Catholic Schools Survive, NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER, June 27, 2012, available at http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/vouchers-help-catholic-schools-survive.

[5] Deanna Pan, 14 Wacky “Facts” Kids Will Learn in Louisiana’s Voucher Schools, MOTHER JONES, Aug. 7, 2012, available at http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2012/07/photos-evangelical-curricula-louisiana-tax-dollars; Rachel Tabachnick, Vouchers/ Tax Credits Funding Creationism, Revisionist History, Hostility Towards Other Religions, TALK TO ACTION, May 25, 2011, available at http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/5/25/84149/9275; Frances R. Patterson, Democracy and Intolerance: Christian School Curricula, School Choice and Public Policy (2003).

[6] Frank Newport, In U.S., 42% Believe Creationist View of Human Origins, GALLUP, Jun. 2, 2014, available at http://www.gallup.com/poll/170822/believe-creationist-view-human-origins.aspx.

[7] William J. Bushaw & Shane J. Lopez, The 45th Annual PDK/ Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, 2013, available at http://pdkintl.org/noindex/2013_PDKGallup.pdf.

[8] Lyndsey Layton, Walton Foundation Pumps Cash Into Vouchers, WASHINGTON POST, Dec. 17, 2013, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/walton-foundation-pumps-cash-into-vouchers/2013/12/17/3578483c-6740-11e3-8b5b-a77187b716a3_story.html.

[9] Joey Garrison, Koch Groups Visiting Cities to Push School Vouchers, USA TODAY, Jul. 22, 2014, available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/07/22/koch-groups-back-school-vouchers/13028559/.

[10] Max Brantley, Koch Money Pushing For School Vouchers, ARKANSAS TIMES, Jan. 22, 2012, available at http://www.arktimes.com/ArkansasBlog/archives/2012/01/22/koch-money-pushing-for-school-vouchers.

[11] Daniel Bice, Report: Bradley Foundation Has Given $31 Million to School Voucher Backers, MILWAUKEE WISCONSIN JOURNAL SENTINEL, Apr. 19, 2013, available at http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/203790281.html.

[12] Erin Richards & Andrea Anderson, Wisconsin Voucher Students Lag in Latest State Test, MILWAUKEE WISCONSIN JOURNAL SENTINEL, Apr. 23, 2013, available at http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/wisconsin-voucher-students-lag-in-latest-state-test-r49ktlp-204204821.html.

[13] See, e.g., Gus Garcia-Roberts, McKay Scholarship Program Sparks A Cottage Industry of Fraud and Chaos, MIAMI NEW TIMES, Jun. 23, 2011, available at http://www.miaminewtimes.com/2011-06-23/news/mckay-scholarship-program-sparks-a-cottage-industry-of-fraud-and-chaos/.

[14] Erin Richards, Rule Changes Allow Troubled Voucher School to Operate, WISCONSIN JOURNAL SENTINEL, May 28, 2012, available at http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/rule-changes-allow-troubled-voucher-school-to-operate-6c5igov-155182395.html.

[15] The Milwaukee Institute for Academic Achievement (MIAA) sought pre-accreditation from an organization called Accreditation International based in Washington State. R. Jay Nelson of the Association for Christian Teachers and Schools reviewed MIAA for Accreditation International. Though Nelson now denies approving MIAA for pre-accreditation, the report he provided to Accreditation International states otherwise. Id.

[16] Stephanie Simon, Louisiana’s Bold Bid to Privatize Schools, REUTERS, Jun. 1, 2012, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/01/us-education-vouchers-idUSL1E8H10AG20120601.

[17] Erin Richards, State Moves to Cut Off Funding For Low-Achieving Voucher School, MILWAUKEE WISCONSIN JOURNAL SENTINEL, Mar. 14, 2014, available at http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/state-moves-to-cut-off-funding-for-low-achieving-voucher-school-b99224100z1-250333591.html.

[18] Erin Richards, State Moves to Remove Private School From Milwaukee Voucher Program, MILWAUKEE WISCONSIN JOURNAL SENTINEL, Mar. 14, 2014, available at http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/state-moves-to-remove-private-school-from-milwaukee-voucher-program-b99170674z1-237092841.html.

[19] See Patrick Elliot, Vouchers Fund Incompetent Schools, FFRF BLOG, Jan. 31, 2014, available at http://ffrf.org/news/blog/item/20015-vouchers-fund-incompetent-schools#sthash.CcK1m1NS.dpuf.

[20] FFRF Alerts Florida About Failed Wisconsin Voucher Schools, Jan. 30, 2014, available at http://ffrf.org/news/news-releases/item/20007-closed-in-milwaukee-open-in-daytona.

[21] Molly Beck, State Paid $139 Million to Schools Terminated From Voucher Program Since 2004, WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL, Oct. 12, 2014, available at http://host.madison.com/news/local/education/local_schools/state-paid-million-to-schools-terminated-from-voucher-program-since/article_d4277f72-51ca-5da3-b63d-df2a7834569b.html.

[22] Katie McDonough, Vouchers’ Secret Bigotry: How Your Tax Dollars Fund Anti-LGBT Hate, SALON, Dec. 12, 2013, available at http://www.salon.com/2013/12/12/vouchers_secret_bigotry_how_your_tax_dollars_fund_anti_lgbt_hate/.

[23] Danielle Dreilinger, U.S. Government Sues to Block Vouchers in Some Louisiana School Systems, TIMES-PICAYUNE, Aug. 24, 2013, available at http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2013/08/us_government_files_to_block_s.html.

[24] Bruce Murphy, The Legacy of Annette Polly Williams, Nov. 11, 2014, available at http://urbanmilwaukee.com/2014/11/11/murphys-law-the-legacy-of-annette-polly-williams/.

[25] James Bock, NAACP Opposes School Vouchers, State Takeover of Failing Systems, BALTIMORE SUN, Jul. 17, 1997, available at http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1997-07-17/news/1997198022_1_charter-schools-vouchers-school-performance.

[26] House of Representatives to Vote on School Voucher Program, NAACP ACTION ALERT, Mar. 2011, available at http://www.naacp.org/news/entry/u.s.-house-of-representatives-to-vote-on-naacp-opposed-school-voucher-progr.

[27] Stephanie Saul, Public Money Finds Back Door to Private Schools, NEW YORK TIMES, May 21, 2012, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/22/education/scholarship-funds-meant-for-needy-benefit-private-schools.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1.

[28] Louisiana Lawmakers Object to Funding Islamic School Under New Voucher Program, HUFFINGTON POST, Jun. 14, 2012, available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/13/louisiana_n_1593995.html.

[29] Lindsay Wagner, Senate Education Committee Chair: “I’ve never been for school vouchers,” NC POLICY WATCH, Feb. 24, 2015, available at http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/tag/school-vouchers/.

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