In today’s divisive sociopolitical climate, the subsidization of private education in the United States has become yet another polarized, hot-button topic. Specifically, under the leadership of current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the issue of school vouchers has been thrust to the forefront of educational discourse and policy-making. Such vouchers consist of government funds that are awarded to families, which can be used to help pay tuition for a student’s private schooling, including religious schooling. Nationally, 29 school voucher programs have been implemented across 16 total states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, with more than 190,000 students presently utilizing vouchers to fund their private education. In their fervent efforts to expand these programs, Secretary DeVos, alongside her Republican allies on Capitol Hill, have supported plans to increase federal funding for vouchers in the form of proposals such as “Education Freedom Scholarships,” which would provide tax credits to individuals and companies that contribute to voucher-issuing scholarship organizations.
The school voucher movement has, over time, lent itself to an increasingly privatized American education system in which many states have been able to subsidize private and religious schooling for students. While the idea behind school vouchers may seem prudent in that students—particularly those from lower-income backgrounds—are ostensibly granted more educational opportunities and freedom as part of the “school choice” philosophy that voucher proponents champion, the serious drawbacks of vouchers cannot be overlooked, including their detrimental effects on public schools, their inefficacy in improving student performance, and their nonsecular implications.
Vouchers intrinsically prioritize private schools over their public counterparts, which ultimately does more harm than good. Simply put, the Center for American Progress asserts that “voucher programs divert funding away from public schools.” This is because, in offering tuition assistance to children, these programs convert tax dollars from would-be public school funds into usable vouchers, which can then be distributed to select students in order to fully or partially cover their private education costs. This cripples public school districts that are in dire need of improvement across the country, directly hurting publicly enrolled students who are ineligible or unable to obtain vouchers (eligibility standards vary by program, but they often involve income cutoffs or are restricted to students with identified disabilities) and whose educational interests are thus left in the hands of underfunded, deprived school districts.
In rural regions of the U.S., where public schools are less concentrated and resources are already limited, the problems associated with voucher programs are even more pronounced. Within these more dispersed locales, the goal of true school choice—which voucher advocates are so eager to achieve—is plainly unrealistic due to the lack of private school accessibility. While 92 percent of urban families enjoy access to at least one in-state private school within five miles of their residence, a mere 34 percent of rural families enjoy comparable access. School voucher programs neglect rural families, consequently widening the educational disparity between urban and rural areas instead of ameliorating existing public schools across the board.
Furthermore, there is a lack of concrete evidence to suggest that these programs demonstrably improve the academic performance of voucher recipients. Given that the design and execution of state voucher programs vary on a case-by-case basis, sweeping attempts to generalize the scholastic impact of vouchers are fruitless. However, valid concerns as to the viability of said vouchers can be extrapolated by examining key case studies.
Washington, D.C., with its notoriously strained public schools, is home to the sole federally funded voucher system in the country, and it epitomizes the failures of school vouchers. Within just one year, voucher-using students in the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) saw their math scores plummet 7.3 percentile points; strikingly, this decline was found to be akin to missing 68 days in the classroom. In addition to Washington, D.C., reports on voucher programs in Louisiana, Ohio, and Indiana corroborated that voucher users at private schools tended to perform poorer on tests than students attending public schools.
In Milwaukee, which houses Wisconsin’s largest voucher system and which established the first school voucher program in the U.S. in 1990, results have been similarly discouraging. While quantitative student performance has not been quite as poor as in D.C. and other districts, the case of Milwaukee offers great insight into the longitudinal outcomes of school vouchers. For example, although Milwaukee’s program targets and consists overwhelmingly of African-Americans, sobering data placed Milwaukee last and second-to-last in reading and math achievement, respectively, among black eighth graders across 13 inner-city school districts. In explaining this curious scholastic regression among voucher users, research has posited that “vouchers distract from proven policies and programs,” such as better teacher training, early childhood education, and like-minded focuses within public school systems that have had more conclusive, positive impacts on student performance. It is nonsensical that Milwaukee taxpayers have had to cover over $2 billion in vouchers when, in reality, these vouchers have not translated into material educational benefit for privately enrolled students.
On top of the academic untenability of these vouchers, an equally grave danger they present concerns their religious usage, as the vast majority of private schools nationwide are religious in nature. Indeed, almost 69 percent are religiously affiliated, with nearly 79 percent of privately educated students attending these religiously affiliated schools. Herein lies the legal murkiness of vouchers. Precisely because vouchers are predominantly used to send children to religious schools, their implementation has been legitimately argued as contradictory to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which undergirds American separation of church and state.
In accordance with their own state constitutions, Florida and other states have ruled against the use of vouchers for private religious schools in the past. However, at the federal level, the constitutionality of government-issued parochial vouchers has remained intact since 2002, when the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold a Cleveland voucher program in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. Historically, in evaluating whether or not an enactment violates the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court has applied the test it initially created in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). Under the so-called Lemon Test, a statute breaches the First Amendment if its express purpose is non-secular, if it benefits or impedes any religion, or if it promotes “excessive government entanglement with religion.”
While the purpose of school voucher programs has never been explicitly religious in nature, skepticism has long persisted regarding whether vouchers violate the two remaining prongs of the Lemon Test. Recent revelations appear to jeopardize the constitutionality of school vouchers under this test, as a 2017 study concluded that vouchers are a leading source of income for Catholic schools and their associated parishes; while the study did not offer definitive evidence indicating that vouchers overwhelmingly advance these schools’ religious agendas, the growth of voucher programs has significantly helped churches to avoid closing or merging with other churches. Given this empirical correlation between voucher expansion and the maintenance of vital revenue streams for Catholic parishes, the study’s findings suggest that vouchers fail the Lemon Test in that such government-authorized programs are instrumental in funding and assisting religious institutions, thereby promoting an impermissible level of entanglement between state and church. While the 2002 Zelman ruling did not strike down school vouchers on these grounds, anticipation that the Supreme Court may soon hear another case on the constitutionality of vouchers has spurred optimism that the Court could overturn its prior decision. Only time will tell if vouchers—despite the fundamental threats that they pose to America’s cherished secularism, its public schools, and its overall quality of education for students—are here to stay.
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