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.”