School Vouchers: A Threat to Educational Equity

Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education in the Trump administration, has long lauded the virtues of school voucher programs. These programs funnel taxpayer dollars away from public schools and towards subsidies that parents can use to provide their child with a private, charter, or homeschool education instead of a traditional public education.

The Obama administration steadfastly opposed school voucher programs on the grounds that there was not enough evidence proving their efficacy and that the Department of Education lacked the resources necessary to properly oversee these programs. But Trump and DeVos have indicated that there will be a stark change in federal policy regarding school vouchers; the proposed federal education budget for 2017 would put 1.4 billion dollars towards expanding school voucher programs, paid for with deep cuts to traditional public education.

DeVos and other Republican legislators hold that voucher programs will promote educational achievement among recipients – DeVos has even gone so far as to call those who question the effectiveness of voucher programs “Flat-Earthers,” or deniers of science. However, a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute found no significant evidence that voucher programs increase academic achievement among students. In some cases voucher schools may actually have a detrimental impact on educational outcomes; according to a report by the Brookings Institution, new attendees of voucher schools in Louisiana and Indiana experienced a drop in math and reading scores when compared with students who remained in public schools.

DeVos and other officials in the Trump administration argue that voucher programs serve as equalizers that allow low-income students, particularly students of color, to get the same quality education as their more well-off peers. DeVos has even said of legislators who oppose voucher programs, “They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it. If politicians in a state block education choice, it means those politicians do not support equal opportunity for all kids.” But studies have shown that voucher programs actually leave the most vulnerable students behind. Private schools are not required to accept vouchers, and even those that do are still allowed to admit or reject students based on their own, often vague, guidelines. Although private schools must adhere to civil rights laws, which prohibit exclusion based on “race, color, national origin, or disability,” selective admissions processes could still leave the door open for discrimination.

In some school districts, this could mean that students with physical, learning or developmental disabilities are abandoned to a public education system drained of much of its funding. According to the Center for American Progress, private voucher schools are not required to make anything beyond “minor adjustments” to their programs to provide for the needs of students with disabilities. This means that these schools can choose not to admit students whose needs are deemed too extensive, and they can deny students educational and behavioral supports at any time. This sets a dangerous precedent, and could curtail efforts to give students with disabilities access to an equal education.

In addition, voucher schools are not always geographically or financially accessible to all. Many low-income and rural districts are far from any private voucher schools, so students in these areas have no option but to enroll in their often under-funded local public school. What’s more, the grants awarded by voucher schools are often not enough to cover the cost of tuition at prestigious private schools. This means that affluent students who can afford to pay the difference attend the best voucher schools, while low-income students attend less highly-regarded ones or remain in traditional public schools.

As a result, many voucher programs have high levels of white, suburban, middle-class enrollment. In Indiana’s statewide voucher program, voucher recipients are 60% white, up from 46% in 2013, and only 12% black, down from 24% in 2013. Only one percent of the students in Indiana voucher schools are enrolled through a pathway specifically designed to help students leave failing public schools; in fact, the majority of voucher recipients in Indiana have never attended public school at all. Clearly, the program largely serves to subsidize well-off students who would attend private schools anyway, not give low-income students a chance to earn a private education.

Voucher programs are particularly threatening to equal education for students of color. As the percentage of white students in U.S. public schools shrinks, the percentage of students of color grows, meaning that cuts to public education hit students of color the hardest. And according to a report from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, school voucher programs have racist origins—they were originally used to give white students the opportunity to attend private “segregation academies” when public school systems were shut down to resist integration. School voucher programs today are not instated with the explicit purpose of maintaining segregation. But a recent report by the Century Foundation (TCF) has concluded that, on average, school voucher programs are more likely to increase racial segregation in schools than to decrease it. In one program highlighted in the report, 90% of school transfers facilitated by vouchers increased school segregation in either the public or private schools involved. The authors of the report expressed concern that white families could use vouchers to opt out of more diverse public schools, increasing racial separation.

School voucher programs also, in the name of “choice” and “religious freedom,” allow federal funding to go to private religious schools, breaking down the separation of church and state. By the most recent estimates, Business Insider reports, 85% of voucher schools are religiously affiliated, and vouchers have provided a financial lifeline to many struggling religious schools at the expense of public schools. DeVos herself has asserted that her work in education reform will “advance God’s kingdom” – a worrying goal for an American public official, to say the least.

Allowing vouchers to go towards religious education finances some schools that discriminate against students for their sexual orientation or gender identity. In a moving op-ed for the Lily, Jaclyn Grimm, who identifies as bisexual and used to attend a Southern Baptist private school, describes how her religious school taught her that members of the LGBTQ+ community were sinners and abominations. Under no circumstances should the federal government be financially supporting schools that treat LGBTQ+ students as inferior.

School voucher programs could also allow federal funds to go towards private schools that segregate by gender. In 1975, Title IX prohibited gender-segregated education except when used as an affirmative action tool – for example, to encourage more girls to pursue careers in science and technology. But this provision was amended by the Bush administration in 2006 to allow gender-segregated education if it was shown to “improve the educational achievement” or “meet the particular, identified educational needs” of its students.

This more lenient standard has already paved the way for alarming growth in gender-segregated public education. According to the Feminist Majority Foundation, this form of education can perpetuate sex stereotyping and gender inequity because it is often founded on the premise that girls and boys have fundamentally different brains. DeVos’s school voucher plan could allow parents to put federal money towards schools that employ damaging gender stereotypes in the classroom and encourage children to conform to restrictive gender roles.

Proponents of voucher programs claim they give students the chance to escape “failing” public schools. But contrary to common Republican rhetoric, not all American public schools are failing. According to renowned educational psychologist David Berliner, well-funded public schools in affluent neighborhoods produce high-achieving students. Although schools in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to produce students who under perform on standardized tests, this is because they are significantly underfunded, not because such public schools are automatically doomed to fail. Since a significant amount of funding for public schools comes from local property taxes, schools in impoverished areas with low property values have less money to spend on education. For example, public schools in affluent Greenwich, CT spend an average of $6000 more per student every year than schools in nearby Bridgeport, a high-poverty area.

Studies have shown that increasing funding to public education improves student achievement, especially among economically-disadvantaged students. But the cuts to public education in the Trump budget would strip funds from before and after-school programs, efforts to reduce class sizes, and teacher training programs – all of which, unlike voucher programs, have been linked to better educational outcomes.

Secretary DeVos’s agenda exhibits a blatant disregard for the needs of students of color, female students, low income students, and students with disabilities. Expanding school voucher programs would jeopardize education equity in the United States. We at the Feminist Majority oppose any attempts to strip students of the chance to earn a quality, equal education.

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