An image that says Vouchers Hurt our public schools. The letters "ouch" are highlighted red in vouchers. The s is a dollar sign.

Universal vouchers and charter school schemes allow religious schools to raid public coffers

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The FFRF Action Fund is warning that a slew of newly enacted laws and policies all over the country will devastate public schools by siphoning funds to private religious schools. 

In addition to harming public school students and staff — and the country’s future academic performance — these programs are an unprecedented assault on the separation between religion and government. It was once well understood as a core American principle that taxpayers could not be forced to fund religious indoctrination. A narrow Supreme Court exception to that rule has metastasized into an Alice-in-Wonderland legal landscape whereby states may face lawsuits for trying not to fund religious education.

Private school vouchers and voucher-like schemes, such as tax credit education savings accounts, have been the major line of attack. Despite longstanding rhetoric claiming that vouchers help low-income families escape failing school districts, the new push is for universal vouchers, meaning even the wealthiest families, and those who already send their children to private schools, can divert thousands of dollars at a time away from public schools.

Arizona, which became the first state to enact universal vouchers last year, is a cautionary tale. Its costly program ballooned from 12,000 students at the start to more than 59,000 in one year, with predictions of 100,000 students opting out of public schools by next summer. The scheme is projected to cost $376 million next school year. Each of these voucher students take an average of about $7,200 from their public school annually, which ends up being deposited into private schools or homeschooling. About half of voucher students have never been enrolled in public school, according to the New York Times. Such schools by design are almost completely unaccountable. In the past, Arizona’s voucher program has been a hotbed of fraud and abuse. It’s no surprise that, in 2018, Arizona voters rejected an invitation to expand their program. But lawmakers committed to defunding public schools don’t care that the idea is unpopular.

Other states are rapidly following Arizona’s example, with Arkansas, Florida, Iowa and Utah passing universal vouchers this year, while Indiana and Ohio massively expanded their voucher schemes to include nearly all students. The overwhelming majority of voucher schools are religious, such as in Iowa, where all but six of the state’s 183 private schools belong in that category.

Arizona also has more than 230,000 charter school students — serving more than 20 percent of public school students in the state — and charter schools are the newest scheme to try to force taxpayers to fund religious education. Even though charter schools are public schools, and required to be secular under state statutes, earlier this summer the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board recklessly voted to allow a Catholic charter school. The state’s attorney general is planning to challenge this egregiously unconstitutional decision, and so is the Freedom From Religion Foundation, with a coalition of groups. It is alarming to see how quickly the Legislature in Guam followed Oklahoma, recently enacting a law allowing for religious charter schools in the predominantly Catholic U.S. territory, even overriding a gubernatorial veto to do so.

Religious charter schools — religious public schools — are blatantly unconstitutional, and will be the subject of costly litigation in months and years to come. Unfortunately, it may be inevitable that other conservative states will seek to follow the lead of Oklahoma and Guam, barring a strong opinion condemning the practice from the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court’s recent decisions greenlighting religious funding, including Carson v. MakinEspinoza v. Montana and Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, are eviscerating strong prohibitions against funding of religion or religious schools in state constitutions. 

The adoption of universal voucher programs, combined with the creation of religious public charter schools, pose an existential threat to America’s heralded system of public education, which is open to all and free from sectarianism. Government officials who try to stop the unconstitutional practice are slapped with lawsuits from church-run schools that now see themselves as being entitled to public funding. The only remaining option, which has been the best plan all along, is simple: Public funds must go only to traditional public schools. 

Media coverage of this issue often falls for the false narrative about “school choice,” downplaying the myriad problems with taxpayer-funded, unaccountable, privately run religious schools. The expansion of vouchers and the new assault via religious charter schools is now one of the gravest threats not only to our public educational system but to the separation of state and church. The FFRF Action Fund, with help from our 40,000 advocates, will actively oppose all future efforts to force taxpayers to fund religious indoctrination.

Read FFRF’s “The Case Against Vouchers” here.

FFRF Action Fund is a 501(c)(4) organization that develops and advocates for legislation, regulations and government programs to preserve the constitutional principle of separation between state and church. It also advocates for the rights and views of nonbelievers, endorses candidates for political office, and publicizes the views of elected officials concerning religious liberty issues. FFRF Action Fund serves as the advocacy arm of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has more than 40,000 members and works to keep religion out of government and educate the public about nontheism.