Supporters of public education hold up signs during a rally March 19, 2013, at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. Opponents of a proposal to expand Indiana's private school voucher program rallied at the Statehouse to make their case that the vouchers hurt traditional public schools. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings; caption amended by RNS)

Private school vouchers are a threat to religious freedom

(RNS) — In his newly released federal budget, President Trump calls for funneling $1 billion in taxpayer funds into private school voucher programs. It’s a bad idea for several reasons.

First, public money should fund public schools, which serve 90 percent of American students. Public schools are a unifying factor in our diverse country and their doors are open to all students, regardless of their religion. Private schools, however, serve only a few, select students.

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Vouchers also don’t work. Numerous studies have shown that students attending private schools with vouchers don’t do better academically — and sometimes do worse — than their peers. Voucher programs also often fund unaccredited, poor-quality schools that take in a lot of taxpayer money but offer little education in return. In some cases, voucher schools — most frequently it is the lowest-quality schools — are almost entirely funded by taxpayer-funded vouchers.

Photo by Denise Johnson/Unsplash/Creative Commons

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Private schools that accept vouchers also don’t provide the same civil rights protections that public schools are required to provide. As a result, voucher programs systematically exclude students with disabilities and voucher schools frequently teach anti-LGBTQ curriculum and have anti-LGBTQ admission policies. This discrimination is paid for with taxpayer dollars.

All of this is bad enough, but vouchers, at their core, violate religious freedom. Vouchers primarily fund private religious schools. That means they take taxpayer money collected from everyone and use it to pay for the religious education of a few. No one should be compelled to fund the religious education of another.

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Houses of worship often see religious education as an extension of their ministry. Private religious schools, therefore, exist to teach and promote the faith of the houses of worship and religious denominations that sponsor them. That’s OK when a house of worship is funding the school with its own money, but with vouchers, the government forces all of us to chip in. And that’s just wrong.

Religious private schools that accept vouchers can often discriminate in admission and hiring. A student can be refused admission for being the “wrong” religion, for dissenting from a church tenet, for coming out as LGBTQ or for any number of things that violate the school’s religion-based rules. A teacher can be fired for being a single mother, marrying a same-sex partner or getting a divorce. No school should be allowed to make religious admission and hiring decisions using taxpayer-funded vouchers.

Students work together on a computer. Photo by John Schnobrich/Unsplash/Creative Commons

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

But vouchers don’t just threaten the religious liberty of the taxpayer. Vouchers also threaten the religious freedom of religious schools. By accepting taxpayer dollars they risk becoming mired in political debates and unwanted government oversight.

A 2017 study showed that vouchers are also a threat to houses of worship. Vouchers are now a dominant source of funding for many churches. While vouchers may lead to an increase in funding for the religious schools, they can spark a decline in donations. This often diminishes the church’s other religious activities. By becoming dependent on state funding, houses of worship could lose their integrity and religious identity.

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Trump’s plan violates America’s great tradition of religious freedom, a tradition that gives all of us the right to support only the religion of our choosing (or the right to support none at all). For the sake of true freedom, the American people should tell Congress to reject this billion-dollar mistake.

(Maggie Garrett is legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)