We already know what a school voucher program like the one championed by Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy “Amway” DeVos looks like. An experimental version was set up for Washington DC in 2004. We also already know that it does not deliver on its promises, and in many cases, makes education worse.
The D.C. voucher plan was originally a Bush administration initiative intended as a five-year experiment, however, it has been allowed to continue despite no evidence that it improves student performance. A 2010 U.S. Department of Education study concluded that there was “no conclusive evidence” that students using vouchers to attend private schools had improved math and reading test scores. Under the D.C. school voucher program, the federal government pays approximately $8,000 a year for elementary school students to attend a private or religious school and $12,000 for students attending private or religious high schools.
Unfortunately, in addition to Washington, DC, fourteen states already have school voucher systems in place. They include states like Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma with some of the worst performing schools and long histories of racial and ethnic discrimination. Many of these states also offer tax credits to companies and individuals who donate money for “scholarships” to private and religious schools.
The National Education Association (NEA) has repeatedly spearheaded campaigns to block Congressional reauthorization of the D.C. voucher program. The group charges the private school voucher program diverts funds from public to private schools at the same that budget cuts leave essential federal Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) severely underfunded. The private schools participating in the D.C. voucher program are not subject to the same oversight, transparency, and accountability standards as public schools and may discriminate against students based on “gender, disability, religion, economic background, national origin, academic record, English language ability, or disciplinary history.” Families of students with special needs who are eligible for vouchers often cannot use them because voucher schools do not provide the essential services these students require. In addition, vouchers often do not cover the full cost of private school tuition, so poorer families are excluded.
Families of students with special needs... cannot use [vouchers] because voucher schools do not provide the essential services these students require.
In March, the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform approved reauthorization despite District leaders criticizing federal interference in the city. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), Washington DC’s non-voting delegate to Congress, charged “There is very limited support for private school vouchers in the Congress and in the nation. When Republicans cannot pass controversial national legislation, they instead abuse their power over a jurisdiction they view as defenseless.”
In 2012, the Washington Post reported that “hundreds of students use their voucher dollars to attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings, such as a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam school based in a converted Deanwood residence, and a school built around the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist.” The fifty-two private schools enrolled in the program at that time were “subject to few quality controls and offer widely disparate experiences.” At least eight of the “schools” were not even credentialed. Over half of the 1,500 students in the D.C. voucher program attend religious schools. At some of the schools, “more than 90 percent of their students” paid tuition with federal vouchers. Parents often choose these schools for their children based on school marketing strategies, rather than on reliable data.
The problem with vouchers is not just for Washington, DC schools. A study of North Carolina education policy found similar problems with their school voucher program, the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Act. It was established by the state legislature in 2013 to provide low-income families with up to $4,200 a year in state-funded tuition scholarships so children could attend private schools. In North Carolina, which has one of most underfunded public school systems in the country, funds for public schools was cut by $11 million to finance the voucher program.
More than 400 of the private schools registered in the North Carolina program, an overwhelming majority are religiously affiliated schools. According to a study published by the Century Foundation, many of these schools “condition admission and retention on dogmatic adherence to specific religious doctrine, usually excluding those who are LGBTQ or come from non-churchgoing families.” One school, the Alamance Christian School located about twenty-five miles from Greensboro, received $121,132 in public funds in 2015–2016 while maintaining an official admissions policy barring children from families that are “Catholic, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, Christian Science.” They maintained the policy by requiring that families “seeking admission must produce a pastoral reference.”
The Fayetteville Christian School that received almost $300,000 in voucher dollars in 2015–2016 mandates:
“The student and at least one parent with whom the student resides must be in agreement with the FCS Statement of Faith and have received Jesus Christ as their Savior. In addition, the parent and student must regularly fellowship in a local church. Accordingly, FCS will not admit families that belong to or express faith in religions that deny the absolute Deity/Trinity of Jesus Christ as the one and only Savior and path to salvation. Furthermore, students and families are expected to manifest a Christian lifestyle by living life according to Biblical teachings. Accordingly, FCS will not admit families that engage in illegal drug use, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality or other behaviors that Scripture defines as deviate and sin. Once admitted, if the student or parent/guardian with whom the student resides becomes involved in any of the above activities it will be grounds for dismissal of the student/family from the school.”
North Carolina private schools frequently use high tuition rates and extra fees, or lack of transportation options, to keep out children from poorer families they do not want to be enrolled. The Fayetteville Christian School charges families an additional $1,000 to enroll children in its gifted program. At Liberty Christian Academy, which receives over a quarter of a million dollars in state funds a year, high school students are charged $750 per course to enroll in dual enrollment courses accredited by a local college.
But maybe North Carolina students are really lucky if they are rejected by the private religious schools. A large number of the schools use science, math, and history textbooks and curriculum published by religious organizations. Bob Jones University Press history textbooks have argued that “The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well” and that the Klan tried to fight the decline in morality by using the cross, targeting “bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies.” The company’s third grade science book states that “Dinosaurs and humans were definitely on the earth at the same time and may have even lived side by side within the past few thousand years” and according to a Bob Jones Teacher resource guide, gays “have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists.” Material published by A Beka Books, a company based in Pensacola, Florida, claims that “God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ” and that Roe v. Wade enslaves unborn children.
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