What’s Wrong with “School Choice”? Plenty.

Photo by Helen Rickard

With the House of Representatives making a push to revive the dormant school voucher program in the District of Columbia, now is a good time to revisit why so-called “school choice” would have a pernicious effect on both separation of church and state and American public education. School voucher proponents like to present their position as one that maximizes choice and improves the educational experience of some students by providing the opportunity to opt out of the public education system while still having taxpayers foot the bill. But the truth is that vouchers divert resources from public schools, impact a limited number of students and don’t always improve their educational experiences, and in many cases direct public money to religious schools in contravention of the First Amendment

There is no doubt that many school districts across the United States face great challenges, but while school voucher advocates point to certain failing schools as evidence for the need for voucher programs, diverting money away from public schools and to parochial ones represents an even greater threat to the quality of public education. Across the United States, public schools are the great cornerstone of democracy: they must accept all students living within the school district and must provide them with a free education. Since state governments have only a limited amount of money to spend on education, voucher programs—even if they are administered fairly—will inevitably divert resources away from open, democratic public schools and towards private ones that are not required to accept all students and may not be as accommodating for students with special needs.

It is far from clear that students who do take advantage of vouchers will, in fact, benefit from an improved education over what they would have had at their local public schools. A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education rigorously examined the federal school voucher program implemented in Washington, DC, and found that, while there was some improvement in graduation rates, overall participation in the program had no measurable effect on student achievement either in the broader group or for students who came from the most underperforming public schools in the city.

Finally, let’s not forget what students will be learning, at taxpayer’s expense, in private religious schools. While some do provide an excellent and broad education, others espouse narrow and even completely inaccurate views rooted in religion on science and other subjects. What if your tax dollars went to support students at schools that teach with creationist textbooks? Private schools are not subject to the same standards as public schools, and disinformation in the classroom can often flourish in these institutions. Of what use is it that a child’s grades improve if he or she is learning in school that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old? Supporting such teaching with tax money is a violation of the First Amendment.

Vouchers are bad policy, but attempts to implement them persist around the nation. A school voucher bill is currently moving through the state legislature in Pennsylvania and may be headed for passage. And controversial Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has proposed in his latest budget to reduce funding for nearly every segment of public education but still increase money for the state’s school voucher program. Now it is as important as ever for humanists to speak out against these efforts to transfer public resources to private and often religious educational institutions. Where public education needs improvement, let us make the investments needed to strengthen it, rather than paying for students to opt out of this cornerstone of our nation’s democracy.