Catholic Bishops Push For Federal Private School Voucher Program With No Accountability

Despite the many recent studies that have “dismal" results for private-school voucher programs, President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos continue to push for them. Now, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is weighing in to support a federal voucher program, which, according to Politico, “they believe could spur a rebirth” for Catholic education.

In June the Catholic bishops sent a letter to lawmakers to propose “principles” for a federal voucher program, including that it be available to students in all 50 states. Such a program would be devastating to public schools, religious freedom and the civil rights of students.  

Americans United doesn’t oppose private or religious education, but we do oppose using taxpayer dollars to fund it: public dollars should fund public schools. Indeed, the basic principles of religious freedom tell us that no one’s taxes should be used to pay for religious education. And the basic rules of equality tell us that federal civil rights protections – including those protecting students with disabilities, LGBTQ students and minority students – should follow federal dollars. 

The bishops aren’t wrong that a federal voucher program would likely be a boon for Catholic education. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state’s tuition tax credit (TTC) (a state voucher by another name) program literally saved the West Catholic Preparatory High School. Five years ago, it nearly shut its doors due to “plummeting enrollment and soaring debt”; but it now receives $800,000 in annual voucher payments – more than 13 times what it collected in tuition before – and has doubled enrollment. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference Education Director Sean McAleer praised the program, noting students have “been given what’s most important, God’s word.”

And here’s what the bishops asked for:  They want to be given federal dollars, but don’t want to have to adhere to any federal rules or oversight. In short, want to have their cake and eat it too.

Catholic bishops are pushing for a federally funded private school voucher program with no accountability.

For example, they want to “retain their autonomy” in areas such as hiring, admission and curriculum. This means they want schools that take vouchers to be free from following civil rights laws and instead be allowed to discriminate in hiring and admissions. And they want to be allowed to infuse religion into every class, including science and math.

Rejecting any federal oversight and accountability standards, the letter also says the only oversight should be based upon the satisfaction of participating families. But the government – and the taxpayers – have a clear interest in knowing how public funds are spent. This is especially true for voucher schemes, which often fund poor quality schools and lack proper accountability measures.

Congress should reject a federal school voucher program. Instead, they should fund the public schools, which 90 percent of American school children attend. Taxpayers can’t afford to fund two education systems – one public and one private.

While Trump and DeVos still haven’t presented any specifics on what their federally funded voucher program would look like, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) have re-introduced a bill to fund a type of national voucher program. And vouchers could also could come up as members of Congress review the tax code.

That’s why it’s important to tell your representatives you support public schools and don’t want any voucher plan that will weaken our public schools and take scarce funding from them.

For more information about vouchers, visit the National Coalition for Public Education, which AU co-chairs.