By Maggie Garrett and Sasha Pudelski
Several groups have announced that this week is National School Choice Week. The name sounds benign, but there’s something they aren’t telling you: A big part of the mission of National School Choice Week is to push private school vouchers.
The National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE) would like to set the record straight—private school vouchers undermine public education, religious freedom and the equal treatment of America’s students; they should not be part of a national celebration of school choice options.
NCPE, the nation’s largest coalition opposed to federal funding for private school vouchers, is a made up of more than 60 education, civic, civil rights and religious organizations. We’re united in the belief that maintaining strong public schools, which are open and nondiscriminatory in their acceptance of all students, is essential to preserving critical American values and ensuring our nation’s future economic prosperity.
We recognize that private school vouchers, whether in the form of direct aid, tax-credits, education savings accounts or other vehicles, divert desperately needed resources away from public schools to fund the education of a select group of voucher students. They undermine the vital function of educating all students while providing no real impact on student academic achievement.
The irony in promoting private school vouchers during a week that celebrates school choice is that voucher programs give private schools—not parents—the choice about what students to educate and how to educate them. Voucher programs provide private schools taxpayer funding to enroll the students of their choice.
In most programs, private schools can discriminate against students on the basis of disability, gender, religion, economic status, or sexual orientation or reject students because of low academic achievement or discipline problems. So, some students may qualify for a voucher but never be able to use one because the private schools those students want to attend will not accept them.
Voucher proponents also say vouchers will help specific groups of children, such as students with disabilities or low-income students. Once again, the facts belie the claim. Students with disabilities are actually underserved in voucher programs and even if a school accepts a student with special needs, it has no real obligation to meet those needs. That is why U.S. Department of Education reports on the D.C. voucher program showed that a significant number of students rejected their vouchers because they were unable to find a participating school that offered services for their learning or physical disability or other special needs.
And, because voucher payments often do not cover the entire cost of tuition or other mandatory fees for private schools, only families with the money to cover the cost of the rest of the tuition, uniforms, transportation and other supplies can use the vouchers. In Cleveland, the majority of families who were granted a voucher but did not use it, cited the additional costs as the reason.
Vouchers also often fail to provide a quality choice. Study after study shows that vouchers do not improve student education or academic achievement, fail to offer families informed school options, lack accountability to taxpayers and deprive students of rights and protections they would otherwise have in public schools. Although states have been successful in passing and expanding voucher programs, the programs themselves still remain unsuccessful education policy.
Voucher proponents counter evidence that vouchers are failing with the tagline that parents can best decide where to send their children to school. But again, studies show that voucher programs do not provide parents with the necessary or accurate data needed to make informed choices about the educational quality of these schools. Most schools accepting vouchers are not required to meet minimum standards for or even reveal information about their standardized test scores, curriculum, or teacher qualifications. These programs provide relatively no accountability to the parents or taxpayers who are funding them.
There are currently 47 voucher programs in operation in 21states. But legislative success in passing vouchers does not correlate to public popularity for these programs. For example, over the past 20 years, the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll has shown that public opposition remains strong. Last year, the poll found that public opposition to private school vouchers reached a new high of 70 percent. And for nearly 50 years, voters have rejected vouchers and voucher-related proposals every time they have appeared on a ballot.
Unfortunately, leaders in Congress are pushing education policy aimed at allowing federal taxpayer dollars to be shifted from public to private schools. NCPE will do everything it can to prevent this from happening. Ultimately, members of Congress will have to decide if they will support public schools, which educate 90 percent of our children, or divert scare resources to unaccountable private institutions.
Let’s make sure we hold our leaders accountable if they make the wrong choice.
Maggie Garrett is legislative director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Sasha Pudelski is associate director of policy and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators. Garrett and Pudelski serve as co-chairs of the National Coalition for Public Education, a coalition of more than 50 public policy, education and religious organizations that support public education and oppose vouchers.