The Freedom From Religion Foundation is sounding the alarm about the reckless and growing campaign around the nation — including legislative initiatives in 11 states, two of which have passed — to strip public schools of funding and funnel those tax dollars to religious schools.
Iowa made national headlines last month when it rushed through a voucher bill that will eventually allow all families, regardless of income, to qualify for public funds to send children to private schools. The law, which is expected to cost taxpayers roughly $345 million per year once it is fully implemented, was the pet project of Gov. Kim Reynolds after her election victory.
It only took lawmakers in Utah eight days to rush the state’s largest voucher program through their legislature, also in January. The program, which will cost taxpayers $42 million, was rushed through the legislature and was approved by at least two-thirds of each chamber. (Although a similar law passed in 2007 was overwhelmingly recalled by referendum by Utah voters, unfortunately if a bill passes with two-thirds of the body in both the House and the Senate, state voters cannot launch a recall).
Several other states across the country have proposed similar legislation. For example, lawmakers in a Kansas committee approved a bill that is disturbingly similar to Iowa’s law this week that would make public funds available to all Kansas pupils beginning in 2026. Eventually, about $5,000 per student could be used for private or home schools, including unregulated, unaccredited schools. It would also fund a separate shadow board of education. Yet another bill in Kansas would expand tax credits allowing taxpayers to write off up to $500,000 worth of scholarships provided to private schools.
Other harmful pro-voucher bills that have been proposed for the 2023 legislative session include:
Texas House Bill 619: This bill would create a voucher system for qualifying students to attend nonpublic schools. The measure has been staunchly criticized by public school advocates, and even by rural legislators who see their already scarce funds being further depleted.
South Dakota House Bill 1234: Under this bill, like the law in Iowa and the legislation in Kansas, every student in the South Dakota school system would be eligible to receive a voucher beginning in 2025.
New Hampshire House Bill 464 and House Bill 367: Bill 367 would broaden eligibility requirements and Bill 464 would eventually allow all students in New Hampshire schools to receive public funds to attend private schools, regardless of income. Bill 464 passed out of its first committee last week and is headed for a vote in the House.
Florida House Bill 1/Senate Bill 202: This high-priority bill in Florida expands those who are eligible to receive vouchers. Were this bill to pass, any student who is a resident of Florida and is eligible to enroll in kindergarten through grade 12 in a public school would be eligible to receive these funds. The program now costs less than $1.5 billion a year. If the bill passes, that taxpayer subsidy would increase to about $4 billion.
Idaho, Nebraska, Virginia, and South Carolina round out the other states that have proposed at least one school voucher program already during the new legislative session. All have commonalities in that they siphon millions of taxpayer dollars to fund private education, which for the most part are religiously segregated.
"School voucher programs violate the principle of separation of state and church enshrined in our Constitution," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "By using public funds to support religious education, these programs harm both the public schools that lose resources and the children who are indoctrinated at public expense with specific religious beliefs at religious schools lacking public oversight.”
A recent NPR piece that highlighted voucher programs pointed out that proponents who often tout “school choice” are often misguided. Arizona has long prided itself on being a leader in “school choice.” However, of the 35,000 vouchers that were claimed in the Arizona program, 80 percent of those vouchers went to recipients who never attended public schools in the first place. The notion that vouchers open up options to students is fundamentally flawed; all it does is provide taxpayer dollars to private, often religious schools.
FFRF also notes that school voucher programs have been shown to have little to no impact on student academic achievement. Students who use vouchers to transfer from a public school to a private school do not benefit academically. Studies repeatedly show no evidence that the academics of voucher students are improved compared to public school students. This is despite the fact that voucher schemes directly defund public schools, which nevertheless still perform better.
Our elected officials must prioritize our public schools and ensure that every child receives a quality education, regardless of their background or religion. FFRF urges policymakers to reject school voucher programs and instead invest in our public education system, which serves the common good and respects the diversity of our communities.