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The School Choice Myth and Our (Literal) Case Against It

Rebecca Guterman,
ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
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January 29, 2016

Opportunity in education. Effective education options for every child. Stimulating educational environments. Every year at the end of January, the proponents of National School Choice Week emphasize these ideals as reasons that parents, educators, and policymakers should support school voucher and tax credit programs.

By appealing to the core aspirations for reform desired among the education community, the school choice movement masks the fact that these programs do not actually offer the benefits their supporters tout. Instead, voucher and tax credit programs typically funnel taxpayer funds into private and often religious schools that are free to discriminate against students on a variety of grounds and are exempt from meeting the same educational requirements as public schools.

In previous years, the ACLU has pointed out the significant and fundamental flaws of these programs. Beyond classroom material, private religious schools can and do discriminate, for example, by excluding students on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, or disability. Unfortunately, parents and educators are still being sold on the school choice myth in 2016.

We are currently challenging Nevada’s newly established “Education Savings Account” program that takes public funds — which would otherwise go toward public schools that welcome all students and adhere to educational standards — and diverts them to vouchers for private-school tuition. As in many states with such programs, the majority of private schools are religious. That means the schools employ a wide variety of curricula, daily practices, and admission and hiring requirements not acceptable in public schools.

For example, in Nevada, Liberty Baptist Academy uses a textbook “based on the truth of God’s word” that refutes evolution and promotes the universe as a “direct creation of God.” Logos Christian Academy disciplines students with corporal punishment. Bishop Gorman High School may dismiss students if they have had an abortion or helped someone obtain one. International Christian Academy will reject or disenroll a student who is gay or bisexual. Many of these schools require religious worship from the students on a daily or weekly basis, can require parents to adhere to a statement of faith or attend the school’s church, and require certain beliefs and conduct from teachers.

Under the Nevada program, voucher money can also go toward non-instructional activities, such as purchasing Bibles or funding renovations for the school’s sponsoring church. This is not only bad policy, but, as we argue in our lawsuit, it also violates the Nevada Constitution. The state constitution specifically states that “[n]o public funds of any kind or character … shall be used for sectarian purpose.”

Parents have the right to send their children to a private school and to provide a religious education for them at their own expense. But taxpayers are not and should not be obligated to fund that decision.

During this School Choice Week, remember that true educational opportunity does not come from a program that takes public money to support schools that can discriminate and indoctrinate. It comes from a robust system of public schools that can provide a free, quality education to students from all religions and backgrounds.

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