Laws to put into place vouchers for religious schools, perhaps the most insidious encroachment of religion into our government, are being quietly expanded all over the country, warns the FFRF Action Fund.
Under the guise of “school choice,” voucher schemes and similar measures transfer taxpayer funds directly to private religious schools, simultaneously defunding public education and forcing taxpayers to subsidize religious indoctrination. (When voucher programs began to lose public favor, they were rebranded as Scholarship Tax Credits, Education Savings Accounts or other similarly named programs. While each kind of program operates slightly differently, the bottom-line accounting is the same: Taxes collected for public education are instead given to private schools to pay for tuition or other expenses. For simplicity, this statement is referring to all such schemes collectively as “vouchers.”)
Currently, 31 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have some form of a voucher program. That leaves only 19 states fully dedicated to the principle that public funds should go solely to public education.
This year has already seen voucher expansion in many states, but there is one piece of tentatively good news: Illinois’ existing voucher program is scheduled to end this year. Lawmakers are under pressure to renew the program from entities such as the Archdiocese of Chicago that are predictably not wanting to give up a stream of taxpayer funds into their bank accounts. However, the prospects seem bright that Illinois legislators will do the right thing to stand up for public education and against government-funded religious indoctrination.
Elsewhere, the situation is bleaker. State lawmakers have created or expanded voucher programs in Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, South Carolina and Utah. One recent trend is to transform existing voucher programs into “universal” vouchers, meaning every child in the state qualifies. Such expansion undercuts the central rationale used by pro-voucher forces: that they supposedly rescue low-income children from “failing” public schools. Universal vouchers allow billionaires’ kids, as well as all students who already attend private schools, to divert public funding. How can our public schools be expected to survive such assaults?
There is certainly no convincing evidence that students who use vouchers to transfer from a public school to a private school benefit academically. Studies of voucher schemes in several states have repeatedly shown no evidence that the academics of voucher students are improved compared to public school students. This is despite the fact that voucher schemes directly harm public schools, which nevertheless still perform better.
Voucher schemes have proven to be ripe for fraud and abuse, often designed to generate profits for wealthy bureaucrats rather than to help students. Private schools are, by design, less accountable than public schools, creating easy openings for corruption and malfeasance. In just one example, the New York Times covered how Steve Yarbrough, as president of the Arizona Senate, both promoted and personally profited off the state’s voucher program. Yarbrough reportedly pushed for a system where his own “tuition organization” was allowed to keep 10 percent of its donations to pay for overhead. The same organization funneled millions of dollars to a private company owned by Yarbrough, paid Yarbrough rent and bought Yarbrough a car.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has been openly hostile to secular public education, has been agitating for non-Catholic taxpayers to pay for its religiously segregated schooling for more than 140 years. Enrollment in Catholic schools has been described as “hemorrhaging students for decades.” Catholic students make up the single largest number of students enrolled in private schools, so Catholic schools are eagerly waiting to cash in as the biggest beneficiaries of voucher schemes.
Vouchers are on the wrong side of the ongoing battle for racial equity. The precursor to modern vouchers was a series of attempts to keep schools segregated in direct response to Brown v. Board in 1954 and similar later decisions. Facing an order to integrate its public schools, Prince Edward County in Virginia slashed public school funding — then closed the schools completely — and offered white students private school tuition vouchers for use at an all-white private school in the area. Diverting funding from public schools to unaccountable private schools is steeped in a blatantly racist history that is antithetical to American values of fairness and equal justice under the law.
Finally, voucher programs are fundamentally un-American. In practice, the vast majority of voucher funds go to sectarian religious schools. This taxpayer-funded indoctrination is something the U.S. Constitution’s Framers considered, discussed and vehemently opposed. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson both argued that forcing taxpayers to pay for religious education was inappropriate government coercion. “Sinful and tyrannical,” Jefferson called it. Diverting public funds to pay for religious education violates the religious freedom of every taxpayer.
The Supreme Court recently ruled that if a state funds private secular education, a rare occurrence, it must also fund private religious education. Now, the Catholic Church is even arguing that it is entitled to taxpayer funds if a state decides to finance public charter schools. The silver lining is that this makes the only remaining solution clear and undeniable: Public funds must be used for public education only. As the Supreme Court wrote in the landmark McCollum decision, “The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny.” It must be protected.
The FFRF Action Fund will continue to fight to stop voucher expansion, and to end existing voucher schemes, in order to preserve our secular government and to protect high-quality public education throughout the United States.
For more information, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has an informational voucher brochure that is available online and also in print.