Paying for Prejudice: How Public Funds Are Being Used to Fund Discrimination in Schools

With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the United States Secretary of Education, the subject of vouchers has gained a powerful mouthpiece. Currently, 15 states and the District of Columbia offer some form of publicly funded tuition voucher or voucher-like education savings accounts to subsidize private school enrollment. Another 16 states offer tax credit scholarship programs for private school attendance. As a result, public money has funded programs that support discriminatory practices.

In their article, “Dollars to Discriminate: The (Un)intended Consequences of School Vouchers,” Suzanne Eckes, Julie Mead, and Jessica Ulm examine voucher statutes and how voucher programs allow private schools receiving public money to discriminate against marginalized groups. Their work demonstrates that policies do not yet exist to prohibit schools receiving public funds from supporting discriminatory practices. While it is illegal for public schools and public charter schools to engage in these practices, private institutions have long been a bastion for discrimination.

Historically, court hearings have halted progress on establishing voucher systems. The courts saw these attempts as an effort to avoid desegregation in the South. Even University of Chicago’s own Milton Friedman, who is credited as a key designer of the modern voucher movement, recognized this could be a consequence of these programs when he stated, “If a [voucher] proposal like that of the preceding chapter were adopted, it would permit a variety of schools to develop, some all white, some all Negro, some mixed.” Largely because of these concerns, voucher programs were long seen as illegal following the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Committee for Public Education & Religious Liberty v. Nyquist. This changed with a 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that found voucher programs did not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which prevents the government from establishing or favoring a particular religion, if they met certain requirements. Since this decision, many cases have been brought before the courts in an attempt to determine if specific programs that allow for discriminatory practices are appropriate uses of public dollars.

Of the policies reviewed in this study, none were found that comprehensively addressed discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation and disability. While a few state policies have language that protect some of these groups, most often those covered are only groups outlined in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: race, color and national origin. Four states, Maine, Mississippi, Nevada and Vermont, do not prohibit discrimination on the basis of race in their programs. LGBT individuals are not protected in voucher programs either. In a 2013 New York Times article, Kim Severson describes policies in Georgia that allow schools accepting public money to expel students who identify as LGBT. While these programs are not labeled as vouchers, they are still channeling public funds to private schools. Situations like this can be found in many states where voucher systems are offered since no state explicitly protects LGBT students in these programs.

Additionally, very few voucher programs include any requirement that private schools provide special education programs, and no programs are required to address the language needs of students. Students with special needs are often underrepresented in voucher programs, which led the ACLU to sue the state of Wisconsin in 2011. Many religiously-controlled schools are also allowed to discriminate based on religious beliefs in admissions and hiring decisions.

Vouchers are expected to be at the forefront of national debates on education for the duration of the Trump presidency even though studies of their effectiveness do not corroborate the claims made by their advocates. Studies have shown that vouchers are not providing an advantage over public school options for students. In fact, an examination of the Louisiana voucher program shows that students fell 24 percentile points behind students who were not awarded the voucher in math and eight points behind in reading. The lack of observable benefit to these programs as well as their potential for discriminatory practices should give lawmakers and citizens pause before embarking on policies that make these programs more prevalent across the nation.

Article source: Eckes, Suzanne, Julie Mead, and Jessica Ulm. “Dollars to Discriminate: The (Un)intended Consequences of School Vouchers.” Peabody Journal of Education. 91 (2016): 537-558.

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Michael Dean Lindemulder

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