Like many we got an email Wednesday night warning us that Iowa senate Republicans were going to take a run at passing a school voucher law for Iowa. Many thoughts immediately crossed my mind:
- the first was “not this again.” Like killing medicare, medicaid and social security killing public schools is a right wing mission that will never die. Our first priority should be to fully fund the schools we have, yet we don’t even come close to that. Yet Republicans want to take money from the public system and hand it off to private schools that seldom answer to anyone.
- The second thought was to remember where this whole concept of “private” schools on public dollars or vouchers originated. I am old enough to remember the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Privatized schools funded by tax dollars were part of the response to avoid integration. Such a sad history.
- Finally – aren’t most private schools religious? Not just in Iowa, but across the country? Isn’t there some sort of constitutional provision against the state supporting religion? Especially one religion over another? I know a split SCOTUS ruled that it was ok for states to give vouchers that families used to go to religious schools, but it still has a stench about it.
One of the scariest things about vouchers to private schools is that such private schools usually are not answerable to any form of control such as a local school board or state agency. Syphoning money off to unaccountable schools is a strange way to confront problems. The reason we have boards and agencies to oversee education is that historically education was thought to best be done in common with oversight.These were not willy-nilly decisions.
Seven years ago the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State published a list of 10 damn good reasons why public money should not be funneled to private schools. We can print a couple of the most important points here but please go to the link for the whole list:
1. Vouchers undermine religious liberty:
The vast majority of private schools are run by religious groups. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 76 percent of private schools have a religious affiliation. Over 80 percent of students attending private schools are enrolled in religious institutions. Most of these religious schools seek to indoctrinate as well as educate. They integrate religion throughout their curriculum and often require all students to receive religious instruction and attend religious services. Thus, there is no way to prevent publicly funded vouchers from paying for these institutions’ religious activities and education.
In other words, vouchers force Americans to pay taxes to support religion. This runs counter to the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. In America, all religious activities should be supported with voluntary contributions.
James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and other Founders strongly supported the separation of church and state and opposed taxation to support religion. As Ben Franklin succinctly put it: “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, ‘tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
2. Vouchers divert public money to unaccountable private schools:
School vouchers are little more than a backdoor way for the government to subsidize religious and other private schools. Under most voucher bills, private schools can take taxpayer money and still deny admission to any student they choose. Unlike public schools, private schools can and do discriminate against students based on various criteria, including religion, disability, economic background, academic record, English language ability or disciplinary history. Public funds should pay only for public schools that are open to all children and accountable to the people.
Private schools are also free to impose religious criteria on teachers and staff. Teachers at religious schools have been fired for having the “wrong” views about religion, for marrying someone of another faith, for getting divorced, for being gay and even for taking public stands that conflict with the church’s view. This may be legal, but it shouldn’t be subsidized by taxpayers.
6. Vouchers do not improve opportunities for children from low-income families:
Vouchers do little to help the poor. The payments often do not cover the entire cost of tuition or other mandatory fees for private schools. Thus, only families with the money to cover the cost of the rest of the tuition, uniforms, transportation, books and other supplies can use the vouchers. In Cleveland, the majority of families who were granted a voucher but did not use it cited the additional costs as the reason they could not use the voucher. Vouchers actually hurt low-income families by undermining the public schools they rely on.
You may also remember back in 2012 when Bobby Jindal was talking of running for president and the Louisiana legislature tried to help him polish his bona fides among conservatives with a school voucher program. It was designed to slip state money into the hands of private Christian schools. The legislature forgot that Muslims had private schools also and their students were ready to sign up for the program.
Well, that killed the program in Louisiana. What most of us call the “unadvertised features.” Remember that when you back Iowa’s voucher program. There will be “unadvertised features” in the Iowa bill also. One of those features will almost certainly be that Iowa’s public education declines and those good schools won’t be there for coming generations.