Billionaire voucher advocate Betsy DeVos is all set as our new education secretary to put into place an alarming national school voucher scheme. Those of us living in Wisconsin know how disastrous this will be for the country.
President Donald Trump has promised to implement a $20 billion federal school voucher plan that will take money from our public school system and funnel it to unaccountable private, mainly religious schools. These vouchers will ultimately cost taxpayers and students alike.
Taxpayers cut the checks to voucher schools yet have no say in how they are run. Our public schools are managed under democratically elected school boards that assert public oversight. Where public money goes, public accountability should follow.
The lack of oversight of voucher schools encourages widespread fraud and mismanagement. The voucher program in Milwaukee, which is the longest running in the country, stands as a prime example. Over a 10-year period, more than $139 million was given to Milwaukee voucher schools that were eventually removed from the program for failing to meet requirements related to finances, accreditation, student safety and auditing.
In addition to the mismanagement, we can be assured that any private voucher schemes will largely benefit church-affiliated schools. In the states that have enacted such proposals, parochial schools have gained a windfall. In recent years, Wisconsin has expanded its voucher program statewide. A full 163 out of 163 schools that registered to participate next year are religious schools. All of the schools are Christian, except two Jewish schools and one Muslim school.
Our government should not be funding religiously segregated schools with public money. Religious instruction has traditionally been left to the private sector as a personal and private decision. With vouchers, religious instruction becomes publicly subsidized.
And what is taught in taxpayer-funded private schools is often very disconcerting, as can be seen in Wisconsin. Voucher schools in the state have used science materials that rail against what they call “the man-made idea of evolution.” A number of schools reportedly lacked any textbooks at all. Some pop-up voucher schools do not have a safe outdoor space for children to play or even offer nutritious lunches. A teacher at one school reported that students were served ramen noodles with hot sauce and a cup of water for lunch before the school was removed from the National School Lunch Program. These types of schools are the last thing we should encourage nationally.
This public subsidy also brings with it troubling policy implications. Voucher schools may try to discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual orientation. Disability rights advocates have noted the lack of legal protections for students with disabilities who attend private schools. This is in contrast to our public schools, which are mandated to accept all comers and to provide a free and appropriate education for all students. These common schools represent the pluralistic society we live in.
Trump’s proposed $20 billion in voucher money would remove much-needed resources from our public school system and instead fund discriminatory unaccountable private religious schools. Taxpayers will pay financially, but students will pay the highest price when our public education system is eroded.
We in Wisconsin have already suffered the consequences.
Patrick Elliott is a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based national state-church watchdog organization.