New Wash. Post exposé discloses huge cost of religious school voucher schemes

Yet another news exposé reveals the folly of taxpayer-funded school voucher programs.

A recent Washington Post story highlights the growing and exorbitant cost to taxpayers subsidizing vouchers paying for private — nearly always religious —  schools. In addition to reporting on the dramatic expansion of voucher programs in states throughout the country, and the eroding line between state and church, the Washington Post article documents the astronomical sums going to religious schools.

Vouchers — subsidies provided by taxpayers to parents to send children to private schools — were initially proposed under the pretext of giving children from poor families more “school choice.” The underlying assumption that private schools would enhance educational outcomes for low-income children has largely proven to be false. Now, the dubious promise of allowing poor families more opportunities has morphed into widespread programs subsidizing the education of rich students who were already attending private schools.

It’s unconscionable that one-fifth of all states today have made most or all children, regardless of family income, eligible to receive vouchers to attend private, mostly religious schools. The 10 states are Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah and West Virginia, with some other states offering more limited subsidies regardless of income.

Arizona has exceeded its voucher budget by $625 million and the cost is expected to balloon to exceed the budgeted amount by $780 million by the end of the fiscal year. In Arizona, which was the first state to allow any family to receive public funding for private schools (or homeschooling), the majority of families applying for the funds (about $7,000 per student) were not even recently enrolled in the public school system.

In Ohio, more than half of students in 2022 choosing EdChoice, their state’s voucher scheme, were already attending private schools. Likewise, in Florida, only 13 percent of the 123,000 students added to the state’s expanded school-choice program in 2022 had switched from public schools. Students who were already enrolled in private schools — who were paying for it themselves, or who were utilizing private  scholarships — now get to rely on public handouts. This directs public money to those who already have the means — and enriches religious schools.

Nationally, roughly 77 percent of students who go to private schools attend religious private schools. In some states, that number is much higher, according to the Washington Post article. In FFRF’s home state of Wisconsin, the Post piece found that a staggering 96 percent of the state’s 55,000 vouchers were used at religious schools. And in Arizona, a state whose voucher scheme has been littered with controversy, more than 75,000 students are benefiting from their state’s voucher program. In 2022 – 2023, most of the $229 million spent on private schools in Arizona went for tuition and 87 percent of that tuition went to religious schools.

Vouchers, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation has long warned, are an exploitation of public funds by private, mostly religious schools that are draining the coffers of public schools. The voucher programs offer so much public money that it often incentivizes private schools to raise tuition or cut back on scholarships. The Washington Post article confirms FFRF’s concerns that religious schools are exploiting these programs to pad their coffers at taxpayer expense. Some voucher schools, such as St. Brendan’s the Navigator in Hilliard, Ohio, are effectively threatening to withhold supplemental aid if the families do not seek public funds first. The principal at Holy Family School in Poland, Ohio, admitted to forcing families to apply for public funds. Without irony, the principal at Holy Family noted that it has not yet raised tuition because it “didn’t want to take advantage of the situation.” That hasn’t always been the case generally, however.

FFRF and its advocacy arm, the FFRF Action Fund, have criticized religious schools in Iowa for taking advantage of the state’s universal voucher program by increasing tuition fees. For example, St. Francis Catholic Schools in Marshalltown intends to incrementally raise tuition over the next three years, reaching approximately $7,500, coinciding with the availability of $7,600 in Education Savings Account funds for everyone. This move is a blatant and greedy attempt to compel all citizens to bear the maximum cost for religious education.

“The Washington Post article shines light on how well-funded religious schools are milking taxpayers,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “The erosion of our vaunted wall of separation between state and church is endangering our public schools. We’ll continue vigorously fighting to strengthen that wall.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members across the country. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation