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Primer on School Vouchers Al Richardson
August 31, 1998 --
A. BACKGROUND: School vouchers represent a radical way of funding public education. Rather than giving money directly to schools, the state would give each school-age student an educational voucher that would be accepted at any private or public school. Tuition voucher schemes may have other names -- such as parental choice, opportunity scholarships, or educational tax credits.
    In Wisconsin, a district court in 1997 struck down the provisions of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program that issued vouchers to parents for paying their children's tuition at religious schools. A state Court of Appeals agreed with that decision, citing the Wisconsin Constitution's prohibition on taxpayer funding of religious instruction. (The Pennsylvania Constitution contains similar prohibitions, Art. III, Secs. 15, 29 and 30.)
    Last June, Wisconsin's Supreme Court reversed the lower court, in a decision that strikes at the heart of the First Amendment, distorts the language of the state constitution, and ignores all prior court rulings on public funding of religion. The June decision is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
    Earlier this year, the Southeast Delco School District in Pennsylvania approved voucher subsidies for private religious schools. That plan is now being challenged in the Court of Common Pleas, Delaware County (Giacomucci v. Southeast Delco School District).

    If one "follows the money," most tuition voucher initiatives will lead back to one of these three groups:

  1. The radical religious right who is committed to "replacing public education by the year 2000," because it believes the purpose of education should be indoctrination, not preparation of children to think for themselves.
  2. Operators of parochial and private schools, who have a vested interest in obtaining taxpayers' money to subsidize their schools. Not all private school operators favor vouchers -- many realize that government money brings government regulations.
  3. The Libertarian Party who is committed by ideology to eliminating public education.


  1. "Public education is failing." Public schools certainly need improving; however, the situation is hardly as bad as critics portray it. Public school performance varies greatly from district to district and from school to school.
  2. "Private schools are academically superior." Surveys show that most private school students do not score much higher on standardized tests than pupils in public schools. According to Money magazine, private schools rank no better scholastically than comparable public schools.
  3. "Private schools can operate at less cost." Public schools must take every child and therefore have the expenses of programs for physically, emotionally and mentally challenged students, while private schools can pick and choose whom they admit and keep.
  4. "Vouchers will improve public education through competition." Additional voucher money, combined with the ability to choose more gifted or less disruptive students, would create an uneven playing field favoring private schools. How can public education be competitive in that situation? Tuition vouchers produce vendor choice, not consumer choice. If public education were failing, vouchers would abet, not reverse, the trend.
  5. "Vouchers will help inner-city youth escape failing public schools." A Harvard study, looking at Wisconsin, concluded that school choice programs leave city kids worse off. An African-American pastor commented on C-SPAN, "Why do you think all those middle-class kids are going to private schools? To get away from inner-city kids!" Since vouchers don't cover the full tuition and transportation to "good" private schools, the poor will be left behind in worsening public schools. In Wisconsin, vouchers created greater segregation, because minorities tended to go to all-Latino or all-African-American schools -- which explains why the Milwaukee NAACP opposed vouchers.
  6. "Parents who send their children to private schools pay double school taxes." In reality, private school tuition is voluntary and is not a tax.
  7. "Vouchers are the best way to improve public schools." To improve public education, failing schools should be fixed, not gutted. Transferring public money to private schools means less resources for public schools. Since most private schools are run by religious groups dedicated to promoting their own faiths, vouchers mean the public treasury would be used to support sectarian schools -- a clear violation of both the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions.

The school voucher plan is not good public policy for America. We don't need to subsidize and encourage divisiveness in our society by allowing the private school lobby greater access to the public purse, whether directly or indirectly.

Al Richardson,
President, Northwest Pennsylvania Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Chuch and State

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