Research led by an Indiana University professor confirms what school voucher critics have long argued: Voucher programs receive public funding yet discriminate on the basis of religion, disability status, sexual orientation and possibly other factors.
The finding is especially timely as President Donald Trump and his designee to serve as secretary of education, Michigan school-choice activist Betsy DeVos, have indicated they will use federal clout and money to push states to expand voucher programs.
“At the time we did the study, we had no idea it would be so relevant,” said Suzanne Eckes, professor in the IU School of Education and the lead author of the research paper. “People are starting to think about these questions, and the topic has not been widely addressed in research.”
The study, “Dollars to Discriminate: The (Un)intended Consequences of School Vouchers,” was published last summer in the Peabody Journal of Education. Co-authors are Julie Mead, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jessica Ulm, a doctoral student at IU.
The researchers examined 25 programs in 15 states and Washington, D.C., that provide public funding for private K-12 schools, including traditional tuition voucher programs and voucher-like programs called education savings accounts. Indiana is one of seven states with a statewide voucher program. Other programs are limited to cities (Milwaukee, Cleveland) or special-needs students.
The authors say legislators who authorized the programs neglected to write policies that provide equal access for students and avoid discriminating against marginalized groups.
“We argue that each state has an obligation to ensure that any benefit it creates must be available to all students on a non-discriminatory basic — including the benefit of a publicly funded voucher for attendance at a private school,” they write.
Indiana’s school voucher program, established in 2011, served 32,686 students who attended 316 private schools last year. Nearly all voucher schools are Christian schools, including Catholic, Lutheran and Evangelical or non-denominational schools. The state spent $131 million on vouchers but provided almost no fiscal oversight, according to a report by the IU Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.
Indiana law bars voucher schools from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin. But state law doesn’t mention discrimination by religion, disability or sexual orientation.
Voucher schools in Indiana can receive extra state money for enrolling special-needs students. But some of the schools have language on their websites that suggests they may not admit students with disabilities – or that they will provide only limited accommodations for students.
As the study notes, citing a 2014 Bloomington Herald-Times article, some Indiana Christian schools that receive vouchers welcome only families that embrace their religious beliefs, including a rejection of a “gay/lesbian lifestyle” that is “contrary to God’s commands.”
The Indiana program does not let students opt out of religious instruction and activities. Of the programs the researchers examined, only Milwaukee’s has an opt-out provision.
Eckes developed an interest in the research topic after reading a 2013 New York Times article that reported Georgia schools receiving publicly funded vouchers could bar or expel LGBT students.
“I just found that astonishing,” she said.
Voucher supporters argue that religious schools need to be able to set their own admissions criteria and that rejecting LGBT students comes from a deeply held religious belief. But Eckes points out that the same argument was once made to keep African-American students out of white schools in the South. The first voucher schools, the researchers say, were publicly funded “choice academies” established to get around the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision.
“Discrimination is discrimination,” Eckes said. “If you’re going to take public money, you simply shouldn’t be able to discriminate.”