Vouchers bad for students, taxpayers

Program’s main beneficiary is mostly private religious schools

A cornerstone of America is our “common school” — free, publicly supported schools open to all children regardless of social class, religion, ethnicity, gender or country of origin. America forged the very concept of universal education.

Another foundation of our republic is the guarantee of government accountability to citizens about where their taxes go.

Yet another bedrock of our republic is the cherished principle of separation between church and state. Our secular nation was founded in part by refugees seeking a country where government could not dictate which church or church school they must attend or support. James Madison successfully opposed a Virginia bill to subsidize religious education, calling it wrong to force a citizen to expend even “three pence” in support of any religious establishment. In warning of this proposal, Madison advised, “It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.”

Many Americans are alarmed at proposals to defund public schools, where 90 percent of students are enrolled, in order to fund private schools. Proponents of vouchers, in openly seeking to “privatize” education, are attacking American principles.

Money to religious schools

The vast majority of private schools are religiously affiliated. Vouchers almost entirely benefit existing private schools with overtly religious missions, which integrate religion into every subject.

• In the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, 100 percent of the schools registered to participate in the 2017-18 school year are religious schools, with 160 Christian schools participating out of a total of 163 registered schools.

• In Indiana, 99 percent of the schools participating in the school voucher program are religious schools. In a 2016 survey by the Friedman Foundation, the number one reason cited by parents for choosing a voucher school was due to its religious environment/instruction.

• In North Carolina, 92 percent of students attend religious schools that receive public money through opportunity scholarships.

• According to a 2017 study by Daniel Hungerman of the University of Notre Dame, “the typical parish accepting vouchers received more money through that avenue than from offertory donations.”

Lack accountability

The lack of oversight of voucher schools encourages widespread fraud and mismanagement.

Taxpayers cut the checks to voucher schools, yet have no say in how they are run. Public schools are managed under democratically elected school boards that assert public oversight. Citizens have no means to review voucher school records, attend meetings or otherwise gather information about school operations or provide input. Where public money goes, public accountability should follow.

• The voucher program in Milwaukee, which is the longest running in the country, stands as a prime example. More than $139 million in tax money over a 10-year period has gone to Milwaukee voucher schools that were eventually removed from the program for failure to meet requirements related to finances, accreditation, student safety and auditing.

• Florida’s McKay scholarship program has been the subject of widespread fraud by unaccountable schools that reaped millions, while students with disabilities were not provided a bona fide education.

• Voucher schools have minimal testing and reporting requirements. In Milwaukee, voucher schools operated for decades without taking statewide tests. Once testing began in 2011, results showed that public school students outperformed voucher students. Public schools, while often being defamed as poor or failing by voucher advocates, have been held to far higher standards than voucher schools.

• New research reveals “private school vouchers may harm students who receive them.” A study of the Indiana voucher program found no improvement in reading scores and “significant losses” in math. A study of Louisiana’s voucher program also found negative results in reading and math for voucher students. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a pro-voucher think-tank, published a June 2015 study of the Ohio voucher program, finding that “students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically.”
Increase taxpayer costs

President Trump has promised to implement a $20 billion federal school voucher scheme that will take money from our public school system and funnel it to private schools.

• Once voucher programs are in place, politicians have changed the rules to allow for rapid voucher expansion.

• Vouchers create a dual-education system where taxpayers are paying for both a public system and a secondary voucher system.

• Vouchers have turned self-sufficient churches into publicly subsidized institutions.

Aren’t about ‘choice’

The voucher movement is not truly a movement championing “choice” or lifting up disadvantaged students.

• Polly Williams, a Democratic African-American lawmaker in the Wisconsin Legislature, worked with conservatives to inaugurate Wisconsin’s Milwaukee voucher program in 1990. Vouchers were sold to her as a way to benefit low-income and minority children in Milwaukee via the “Milwaukee Parental Choice Program” to attend private secular schools.

The Bradley Foundation, a voucher partner, soon lobbied to expand the program so students could attend religious schools. The overwhelming number of students now attend religious schools and many are not needy. Williams charged in 2013: “They have hijacked the program.”

• Wisconsin voucher advocate George Mitchell callously revealed his agenda when he dismissed Williams as “useful to the school choice movement because of her race and her party affiliation.”

• In practice, vouchers do not remove students from struggling public schools. Vouchers often replace privately funded education. When statewide vouchers were implemented in Wisconsin, 75 percent of voucher recipients had already attended a private school.
How do they operate?

Some voucher-subsidized elementary schools set up shop in office and industrial buildings that lack a safe place for students to play outside. By contrast, public schools offer safe recreation areas for students.

• A teacher at one school in Milwaukee reported that students were served ramen noodles with hot sauce and a cup of water for lunch before the school was removed from the National School Lunch Program. This could not happen in public schools.

• Some voucher schools have failed to provide textbooks to students.

• Some voucher schools have a “science” curriculum that claims to refute “the man-made idea of evolution”; many others simply ignore evolution. Public schools, by contrast, may not preach creationism and must provide science classes that cover evolution.

Protecting rights of states

Decisions on education funding and policy have traditionally been left to state and local governments. The Trump proposal would involve massive federal interference and intervention of state and local governments. Education programs often rely on states to manage federal grants that are then provided to local schools. Any federal voucher program will surely involve state agencies and direct state policy. However, many state constitutions wisely prohibit the state from providing aid to religious schools. Federal voucher legislation must not infringe on these state constitutional protections.

Subsidize discrimination

Our public school system is a pluralistic institution where all students are welcome regardless of their background or religion. Voucher schools are heavily segregated on the basis of religion.

Voucher schools have few barriers to prevent them from discriminating in hiring or student admissions on the basis of disability, religion, or sexual orientation. While receiving a bad rap, struggling public schools whose tax source is being raided to finance private schools, must accept and educate all-comers. Notably, public schools must provide a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities.

Don’t mix church and state

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. They benefit those denominations that have the most private school infrastructure in place.

While vouchers were a “windfall” for Catholic dioceses, researcher Hungerman noted, they “cause significant declines in church donations and church spending on non-educational religious purposes.”

Congress should reject vouchers and protect public education, heeding the wise words of father of U.S. Constitution, James Madison, who noted: “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” Read and share this brochure (including footnotes) at ffrf.org/caseagainstvouchers.

Freedom From Religion Foundation