COLUMN: The not-so-hidden dangers of school vouchers

“The public school is the greatest discovery made by man.”

Horace Mann, son of a poor farmer who rose to Congress on the strength of his education, uttered those words in the early 19th century because he realized the truth of what Plato expounded roughly 22 centuries before him — education is the cornerstone of a just and well-ordered society.

Now, we seem intent on destroying that cornerstone in favor of voucher systems that disproportionately benefit white, Christian, well-to-do children at the expense of minorities and the poor, and threaten to roll back what little progress we’ve made in true integration of our schools and our society.

In his recent State of the Union address, President Trump urged Congress to “Pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act — because no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.” The president then presented Janiyah Davis, a young black girl from Philadelphia, a scholarship to attend the school of her choice.

The moment was heartwarming. And it had a clear message: “Pass school choice so we can help minorities escape horrible inner-city schools.” It’s a message that’s easy to embrace – especially for someone like me. In fact, I am the perfect demographic for school choice tax credits. I am at the lower end of middle class. My daughter attends a private Christian school. And we are white.

But, for the families young Janiyah was used to portray — minority families from struggling public schools — school voucher programs would be anything but beneficial.

First, where “school choice” has been implemented, it’s not proven effective at improving education and mostly benefited kids already bound for private school.

In Mike Pence’s Indiana, NPR in 2017 studied what was then the largest state-run school voucher program in the nation, finding more than half of all voucher students had no record of attending a public school. In other words, the majority of kids in the voucher program already were in, or were bound for, charter or private schools. All vouchers did was siphon money away from the kids stuck in already cash-strapped public school districts.

Another 2017 study in Indiana, by Notre Dame and the University of Kentucky, found students who exercised vouchers to move to private schools actually fell behind their public school peers in academics, particularly in math.

Also in 2017, a review from the Economic Policy Institute came to a similar conclusion, finding, “extensive research on educational vouchers in the United States over the past 25 years shows that gains in student achievement are at best small.”

If school vouchers are ineffective at improving educational outcomes, and don’t serve those most in need, then what is the motivation behind them?

A brief look at history gives some hint at the outcome, whether it be intentional or unintentional.

When the Supreme Court found segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, voucher-funded private schools boomed in the South. Within 15 years, more than 200 voucher-funded private schools opened in previously segregated districts, with one express intent — to allow white families to continue segregation.

School vouchers open the door to resegregation, because private schools, even those which benefit from voucher and tax-credit programs, are not bound by the same standards in admissions, education or equal opportunity as their public counterparts.

The admittedly left-leaning Center for American Progress studied the nation’s 62 voucher programs, operated by 29 states, in 2019. They found less than half the programs had statutory protections against racial discrimination, and even fewer contained protections based on religion, sex, disability status, sexual orientation and gender identity.

In those schools, federal protections against discrimination go out the window. That means schools receiving funds that otherwise would have gone to public schools are free to discriminate against LGBTQ, minority and disabled students, and those whose parents don’t hold certain political or religious beliefs.

Given our nation’s history, and the current administration’s efforts to re-brand “religious liberty” to justify discrimination against anyone who falls outside a white, Christian, conservative worldview, I see no reason to believe expanding voucher programs would not amount to de facto resegregation.

For white, middle-class students who are close to the ability to attend private schools, vouchers promise the means to close that gap, and flee racially and culturally diverse public school districts for the sanctuary of predominantly white, Christian private schools — and to take their public school funding with them.

Lower-income, predominantly minority students, meanwhile, would largely remain out of reach of those private schools, even with vouchers, and would be left behind in increasingly poor and increasingly underfunded public schools.

This would increase the momentum of resegregation already happening in America’s urban school districts. A 2016 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed the percentage of American public schools with high concentrations of poor black or Hispanic students almost doubled — from 9% to 16% — between 2000 and 2014.

Offering vouchers will only worsen that problem, increase the flow of money away from the schools that need it most, and deepen the divisions of race and class in our society.

The president is right about one thing. No parent should have to send their child to a failing school.

But, if we force minority children to remain in defunded public schools, while predominantly white, middle-class, Christian families are allowed to funnel tax dollars to private schools, then we already have failed as a society.

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com.
Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Do you have a story idea for James? Send an email to jneal@enidnews.com.

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