Consider the term “school choice.” It sounds nice, but in reality it’s a friendly name for a political ideology that, at its core, threatens to undermine public schools, effective state budgeting, and the separation of church and state, among other things.
At this year’s State of the Union address, President Trump touted a bill that would provide vouchers for pricey private school education. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has been one of the congressional champions for this program and authored the bill, and he’s been joined in this advocacy by renowned voucher proponents Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Vice President Mike Pence, along with other members of Congress.
What Trump now refers to as “government schools” (read: public schools) are learning institutions that educate 90 percent of America’s students. These taxpayer-funded schools are welcoming to all, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, creed, or special needs status. On standardized tests, students who remain at public schools outperform students who use vouchers to attend private schools. And yet, DeVos once called this American institution a “dead end.”
The legislation that Trump and Co. are promoting would create a five-billion-dollar scholarship fund to be used for private and religious schools. Individuals and businesses give to the fund in exchange for a dollar-for-dollar federal tax credit. The proposed program mirrors one currently under review by the Supreme Court in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.
Three mothers filed a lawsuit against the state of Montana with regard to a nearly identical school voucher program. The program used tax credits to fund vouchers for private schools, and the parents in question planned to use these vouchers to send their children to religious schools. However, the Constitution of the State of Montana forbids any public support, direct or indirect, for religious organizations. In that case, the state suspended the scholarship program in full, arguing that it was in violation of the constitution’s “no aid” clause, which prohibits direct and indirect aid to religious institutions.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh described Montana’s no-aid clause as “rooted in grotesque religious bigotry against Catholics.” This assessment is categorically untrue. While some argue the clause is rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry, the motivation actually comes from a legitimate desire to disentangle religion and government. The clause was reaffirmed during the state’s 1972 constitutional convention in an effort to make clear that public funding cannot support any and all religions in any direct or indirect capacity. But the separation of church and state is not the only American institution that will face potential destruction if legislation like Trump’s voucher program is enacted.
Part of the effort involves altering the naming conventions around public education, as evidenced by the president’s linguistic choices during his State of the Union speech. Today’s public schools will become “government schools,” while “public schools” will refer to any school that receives public funding. The proposed scholarship fund legislation makes no requirements as to what schools are eligible for funding. Part of the very nature of vouchers is that these programs subsidize religious education and discrimination with public tax dollars.
A school that fires LGBTQ+ staff or expels LGBTQ+ students? Eligible for public funding. A school that ignores accurate science and promotes young-Earth creationism? Eligible for public funding. A Christian Science institution that promotes faith healing to the detriment of children’s health? Eligible for public funding.
Already some state and federal money is currently accessible to private, religious institutions, as dictated by a few critical Supreme Court opinions. Board of Education v. Allen (1968) and Everson v. Board of Education (1947) laid out three standards for public funding:
The rule derived from these decisions is that the government may provide aid to religious schools as long as the aid is (1) secular in content, such as funding for bus subsidies or secular textbooks; (2) generally available to students in both public and private schools; and (3) primarily directed toward students rather than toward schools.
These rules were cemented in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer (2017), when the high court struck down an earlier decision to disallow religious schools from a state program funding playground resurfacing. But the religious right wants ever more privilege.
Voucher tax credit programs like the one Trump will spend the next year advocating for are designed to help the wealthy and the hyper-religious, those who would steal from the coffers of the government to advance their own ideology, whether political or religious in nature. Voucher programs like this one should be opposed by all who value an educated and equitable society.