Right-Wing Voucher Push Undermines Public Education & Constitution

Religious Right leaders and anti-government ideologues have shared a decades-long dream: to dismantle public education through a system of vouchers that would divert taxpayer funds out of public schools and into religious schools and other private academies.  For some, privatizing education is primarily a religious or ideological project. For others, the billions of dollars that flow through public schools is a tempting source of cash. For some it’s both.  Whatever the incentive, voucher proponents are finding success.  A renewed push for the creation and expansion of voucher and voucher-like schemes is contributing to a disturbing rise in public education dollars being diverted to schools that face little to no oversight or public accountability and teach religious dogma at the expense of science.

Most recently, on February 28, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that Douglas County’s voucher program – labeled a “Choice Scholarship Program” in accord with the messaging tactics of Republican spinmeister Frank Luntz – does not violate the state Constitution’s explicit prohibitions against public funding for religious education, even though 18 of the county’s 23 “private partner” schools are religious.  As reported by the Associated Press, dissenting Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Steve Bernard wrote, "In my view,[the Colorado Constitution] prohibits public school districts from channeling public money to private religious schools. I think that the Choice Scholarship Program is a pipeline that violates this direct and clear constitutional command." 

The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State say they will appeal to the state Supreme Court.  Heather L. Weaver, staff attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief said “Public education funds should be used to help improve our public schools, not to promote religion in violation of the state constitution.”  Unfortunately, the Colorado case is not the first in which courts have been willing to go along with voucher plans.  In 2011, in a 5-4 ruling, the conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority allowed an Arizona tax-credit / voucher program to stand while weakening the ability of citizens to challenge programs that divert public funds for religious purposes.

State legislators and their corporate backers in the American Legislative Exchange Council have pushed similar voucher-like tax breaks in other states, often employing the language of “choice” and “options” to divert public attention from the intent and effect of these schemes.  After conservative victories in state elections in 2010, governors and legislators in many states, including Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Florida, pushed to create or expand programs that divert public education dollars into religious schools and other private academies.

Among the most aggressive is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is basically pushing an effort to privatize public education in his state.  He has instituted a massive voucher program grounded in the “model legislation” pushed by ALEC, which honored Jindal in 2011 with its Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award.  Think Progress notes that Jindal’s plan will divert huge sums from public schools:  “Since the public schools will lose commensurate funding every time one of their students opt for a voucher, the state’s public school system could by some estimates lose up to $3.3 billion annually once the program is fully implemented. “

Ed Kilgore noted last summer in Washington Monthly:

In heading his state in the direction of universally available vouchers rationalized by public school failure, Jindal is not, of course, holding any of the private school beneficiaries accountable for results, or for common curricula, or, it appears, for much of anything. A big chunk of the money already out there is being snapped up by conservative evangelical schools with exotic and hardly public-minded curricular offerings, with the theory being that any public oversight would interfere with the accountability provided by “the market.” So if you want your kid to attend, at public expense, the Christian Nationalist Academy for Servant-Leader Boys & Fecund Submissive Girls, that’s okay by Bobby.

Lack of accountability is a real concern.  While proponents of voucher programs paint a picture of a poor student being given a chance to attend an elite private academy, most of those schools have few openings, meaning that the “choice” offered to many students and parents is something far different, including fly-by-night schools with little track record of their own.  According to the Louisiana Budget Project,

Louisiana requires almost no accountability from voucher schools....While voucher students are required to take the same assessment tests as public school students, there are no penalties for private schools if they fail to measure up to their public counterparts. In fact, Gov. Jindal vetoed language in a 2011 appropriations bill that would have removed participating schools if their students’ scores lagged those in the lowest performing schools in the Recovery School District, which incorporates most New Orleans public schools.

So if public schools have lousy test scores, they're failures and their students all get vouchers. But if the private schools have lousy test scores, then....nothing. Presumably the magic of the free market will fix them up.

In June 2011, an investigation by Miami New Times found a breathtaking lack of oversight and accountability in Florida’s voucher program for disabled students, likening it to “a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats.”

In addition to defunding public schools at the expense of unaccountable private schools, voucher programs end up using tax dollars to promote sectarian religious education and proselytizing. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops describes Catholic schools as central to the church’s “New Evangelization.”   And in Louisiana and elsewhere, tax dollars are being used to support schools that teach young-earth creationism, revisionist U.S. history published by fundamentalist Bob Jones University, and other religious dogma applied to civics, politics, and literature. 

The Agenda Behind the Voucher Agenda

During “National School Choice Week,” which ran from January 27 to February 3, the Heritage Foundation published a special report, “Choosing to Succeed,” which included a call for abandoning the “myth” and “relic” of the common school.  In January, Americans for Prosperity published a report blaming the federal government for the failure of education reform and promoting vouchers and voucher-like tax schemes, such as Pennsylvania’s “Education Improvement Tax Credit.” 

On February 5, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gave a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where he argued that education funds should follow students whether they “choose” public, private, or charter schools. He asserted, “One of our priorities this year will be to move heaven and earth to fix our education system for the most vulnerable.”  It is important to understand that targeted voucher programs that allow students from poor families, children with disabilities or students in underperforming schools to attend private schools that will accept them are not the ultimate goal of school privatizers. They are a tactical means to a much larger strategic end, which is the end of public education altogether, as pushed by David Koch in his run for the White House in 1980. As Milton Friedman, intellectual godfather of the movement, said “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system.”

In a May 2011 article, researcher Rachel Tabachnik reviewed the history and financing of the school privatization movement. Its financial backers have been pouring millions of dollars into state politics for the past decade in order to build legislatures more to their liking.  Right-wing donors such as Betsy DeVos and the Walton Foundation funnel money through groups with media-friendly names like All Children Matter, its successor the American Federation for Children, and AFC-affiliated state-level political action committees like Students First, which raised more than $6 million for the 2010 election cycle in Pennsylvania.

“Like most other conservatives and libertarians, we see vouchers as a major step toward the complete privatization of schooling,” wrote Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast in 1997. “In fact, after careful study, we have come to the conclusion that they are the only way to dismantle the current socialist regime.” Heartland has received significant funding from right-wing foundations over the years, including the Charles Koch Foundation.

Another major ideological target is public employee unions, and teachers unions in particular.  A 2011 New York Times story about FreedomWorks’ lobbying for a Pennsylvania voucher program noted, “FreedomWorks is pushing anti-union legislation in several states, and saw the school choice legislation as part of that larger battle.”

School vouchers are just one part of the immensely complicated arena of education policy.  A wide array of strategies and policy proposals is often confusingly lumped together under the banner of “education reform” or “school choice,” terms that can encompass everything from curricula, student testing and teacher evaluation, charter and cyber-charter schools and more.  Some strategies may identify effective reforms that can be replicated and used to strengthen public schools and improve educational opportunity.  Others, like vouchers, are designed to weaken or dismantle public education altogether.

As parents, educators, and activists evaluate various education reform proposals, it is worth keeping in mind the question posed  by Stan Karp, in the Spring 2011 edition of Rethinking Schools, when he said that what is ultimately at stake in the school reform debate is “whether the right to a free public education for all children is going to survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions, collectively owned and democratically managed – however imperfectly – by all of us as citizens. Or will they be privatized and commercialized by the corporate interests that increasingly dominate all aspects of our society?”

Note: this is the first in a series of posts about right-wing efforts to undermine public education, often in the name of education reform.

See also: Predatory Privatization, a 2012 Right Wing Watch In Focus report; and  Voucher Veneer: The Deeper Agenda to Privatize Public Education, a 2003 report from People For the American Way Foundation.