It is National School Choice Week (January 26th – February 1st), which supporters tout as a time to “highlight a variety of school choice options — from traditional public schools to public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, online learning, and homeschooling.” But the school choice movement is primarily about funneling taxpayer dollars to private schools, including religious schools, through school vouchers and tuition-tax credits, also known as neo-vouchers.
Voucher proponents are asking Americans to do something contrary to the very ideals upon which our nation was founded: to pay taxes to fund religion. Indeed, vouchers require Americans of all faiths or no faith to allow their tax dollars to be used for the religious indoctrination of children at schools with narrow parochial agendas. In many programs, 80 percent of vouchers are used at schools whose central mission is religious training. And in such schools, religion permeates the classroom, the lunchroom, even the football practice field. Channeling public funds to these institutions flies in the face of the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state.
Implementation of voucher programs also sends a clear message that we are giving up on public education. Vouchers may help some students. But the genius of the American system of public education is that it is for all children, regardless of their religion, their academic talents or their ability to pay a fee. This policy of inclusiveness has made public schools the backbone of American democracy.
Contrary to this policy of inclusiveness, most school voucher programs allow participating private schools to discriminate in some form or another. For instance, some programs allow schools to reject applicants because of low academic achievement or discipline problems. Other programs permit participating schools to discriminate on the basis of disability, gender, religion, sexual orientation and/or gender identity. And some private schools promote agendas antithetical to the American ideal.
Proponents of vouchers argue that these programs will allow poor students to attend good schools previously only available to the middle or upper classes. But vouchers will do nothing for poor families who cannot make up the different between the voucher amount – typically around $5,000 – and the typically high cost of private school tuition.
School vouchers undermine two great American traditions: universal public education and the separation of church and state. Instead of embracing vouchers, communities across the country should dedicate themselves to finding solutions that will be available to every American schoolchild and that take into account the important legacy of the First Amendment.