Those damn vouchers. It’s the one education issue that departs me from the company of fellow school choice advocates. They're with me on charter schools, but go ghost on publicly funded private school tuition. The "I-don't-think-public-money-should-go-to-private-schools" contingent is legion. They are absolute. And, in my opinion, they are in direct violation of their own progressiveness.
Enter my friend and colleague Beth Hawkins who has a recent blog post titled “A Voucher is a Voucher is a Voucher - And They’re All Wrong." She calls it a rant, which is an apt description for a post in which she boils vouchers in acid and then arranges the bones to say "Hell No."
Her prompt is Minnesota's pending proposal for an “Opportunity Scholarship” that would fund private school tuition for low-to-middle income students. Given the shockingly poor outcomes for black and brown kids in our relatively well-resourced Twin Cities schools, I welcome anything that offers parents an alternative.
Beth isn’t a fan. At all.
“I have long opposed private school vouchers for many reasons–not least of which I think it’s morally wrong to give tax dollars to programs that can legally discriminate,” she says. “Against people like me, a gay woman. And against one of my children, who has an intellectual disability.”
We agree on that. Education should be about liberation, not discrimination.
Yet, we can't fairly debate vouchers without a scan of actual state voucher programs to see if the fears are sound.
Actually, a Voucher is not a Voucher - and some are good
Ironically, some charter supporters resort to making the same arguments that charter opponents make (i.e. "siphons" money from the public system, supports schools that discriminate, diminishes protections students have in district schools, etc.).
For her part, Beth argues “in the case of queer kids and kids with disabilities, taking a voucher to a private school means giving up the protection of the laws of the land that exist specifically to protect people whose needs are costly, inconvenient or uncomfortable.”
That would be bad if it were true.
Alas, most state voucher programs target tuition subsidies toward children in poverty and those with disabilities.
Here are a few examples:
- Mississippi’s voucher program supports students with Dyslexia or speech-language impairment.
- In Oklahoma, public school students with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) can get a scholarship to attend private schools on the state's approved list. To be approved schools must demonstrate fiscal soundness, comply with anti-discrimination laws, and have fully credentialed teachers with more than 3 years experience.
- Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship program offers subsidies for students with disabilities, military families, wards of the state, and students who live near “D” or “F” rated schools.
- Ohio’s statewide program, EdChoice, pays for 60,000 low-income students in under-performing schools to attend private schools. Students with autism or other disabilities can receive larger subsidies depending on the severity of their disability.
- Established in 1873, Maine has the nation’s oldest voucher program. As of 1980 religious schools have been barred from participating. I don't support that, but it’s an example of how safeguards can be installed to prevent faith-based, discriminatory “pray away the gay” programs.
These scholarships aren’t outliers. Indeed, they are the most common forms of vouchers (here's a state-by-state comparison).
The Goose and the Gander
Beth says “We are talking about sending public money—which people of myriad creeds contribute, because way back when we decided we were one nation, indivisible—to institutions that may decide to flaunt civil rights.”
That argument is smothered in idealism about public schools, and steeped in dogma about private ones.
Truth is, America has never respected a “myriad” of creeds (travel ban anyone?); we have never been one nation; and living in Trump-world is obvious evidence we are only indivisible in the thinnest stretches of our imaginations. When exactly did "we" decide "we were one nation"?
Real talk, without vouchers in the picture we're sending public money to institutions that “flaunt civil rights" all the time. Those institutions are called “district schools.”
The evidence is tucked in Beth's piece. She relays a story about a traditional district school that “pushed out” her son due to an intellectual disability.
In another story she talks about a local school district that experienced a “suicide contagion” due to policies that were hostile toward LGBTQ students.
I could add to her stories. The district where my children attend school settled 15 serious claims of systemic racial discrimination with the federal government.
Not to be outdone, California has 99 school districts that had to settle discrimination cases with the feds.
Get this: The democratically elected school boards of Texas were under suspicion of working with a powerful law firm that train education leaders on how to discriminate against children with disabilities.
I could go on.
If the possibility of discrimination is cause for block funding for educational programs we might as well shut down public schools and start over. It's that bad, and it's the reason so many families want alternatives.
Yes, there are valid arguments against vouchers. Most can be addressed by the way voucher laws are written. But, it's simply unfair to summarily disregard the aspirations of marginalized children and parents who currently make good use of public funds to access educational programs they want and need. They matter. They deserve choices. It's their lives on the line and God bless them for actively seeking better for themselves.
For me, prioritizing their rights and their self-determination over the whims and privilege of voucher opponents is the truly moral thing to do.