Weak laws allow discrimination in voucher, charter schools

School voucher programs and charter schools practice discrimination in enrollment and hiring because they can, according to a recent policy brief from the National Education Policy Center. Federal and state laws permit discrimination in private schools that receive public funding. And charter schools are held to looser standards than traditional public schools when it comes to selecting students.

The policy brief, by education law scholars Julie Mead of the University of Wisconsin and Suzanne Eckes of Indiana University, examines the legal landscape that allows for discrimination and recommends changing laws to ensure publicly funded schools are open to all.

“To the extent that states have determined that voucher programs and charter schools are part of the menu of educational opportunities” they write, “those programs must also ensure equitable access to both students and employees. To do anything else is to return to the days of separate and inherently unequal education.”

Mead and Eckes identify three factors that allow for discrimination.

  • Federal law largely prohibits discrimination in public spaces but may allow it in private spaces such as private schools, even those that receive public funding via vouchers.
  • Private schools and charter schools design their own programs and may not offer adequate services for certain students: for example, students with disabilities and English learners.
  • State legislatures have taken a hands-off approach to discrimination in voucher or voucher-like programs, which now exist in 28 states.

In Indiana, for example, voucher schools are barred from discriminating by race, color or national origin but may discriminate by religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status or other factors.

The policy brief cites the example of Indianapolis Roncalli High School, which indefinitely suspended a guidance counselor after learning she had married her longtime female partner. The school has received almost $6 million in state voucher funding over the past four years.

It also points to reports that Indiana voucher schools refuse to enroll students because of their religion or sexual orientation and research that finds many charter schools are racially homogenous and enroll fewer special-education students and English learners than public schools.

Mead and Eckes recommend four changes:

  • Congress should prohibit discrimination by schools that receive public funding.
  • Federal agencies should consider withholding funds from schools that discriminate.
  • States should revise voucher laws to ban discrimination by sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, first language and other factors.
  • States should strengthen laws to ensure that charter schools are accessible to all students.

Vouchers and charter schools may have been created with good intentions, Mead and Eckes write, but “we can ill afford to experiment with equity and access in programs funded by public dollars. Insisting that publicly funded programs ensure access to the entirety of the public should be beyond argument.”

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Roncalli flap could prompt debate on vouchers and discrimination

Hats off to State Rep. Dan Forestal. Responding to a flap over Roncalli High School’s threat to fire a popular guidance counselor, the Indianapolis Democrat said Wednesday that he will introduce legislation to outlaw discrimination by private schools that receive voucher funding from the state.

There’s not much chance the proposal will become law, but it could spark debate about one of the most offensive aspect of Indiana’s voucher program: Schools that receive millions of dollars in state funding are free to discriminate in employment and in the enrollment of students.

The controversy at Roncalli, a Catholic high school in Indianapolis, involves Shelly Fitzgerald, a longtime counselor who was placed on paid leave after school and church officials learned she had been married to a woman since 2014. She told news media that school officials said she could dissolve her marriage, resign, be fired or keep quiet and leave her job at the end of the year.

Roncalli students have received almost $6 million in state tuition vouchers in the past four years, according to reports from the Indiana Department of Education.

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Study confirms voucher programs discriminate

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.

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