Despite the massive amount of data showing that voucher programs have failed to improve learning outcomes, voucher proponents are gearing up for another effort. The Indiana Capital Chronicle recently published a commentary from Andrea Neal, promoting the notion of “universal” vouchers–“choice” for everyone!
I sent the following rebuttal to the Chronicle, but Steve Hinnefeld got there first.
During my academic career, I did extensive research on school vouchers. (I authored the entry on the subject for the Encyclopedia of Public Administration.)
“Choice” sounds great. Providing citizens with a wide freedom of choice–of religion, politics, lifestyle– is a quintessentially American goal. The problems occur when institutionalized choices promote division, undermine civic cohesion, and fail to provide the promised benefits. In the case of vouchers, numerous studies have confirmed that the theorized educational outcomes have failed to materialize, and that children using vouchers to attend private schools have—at best—done no better than their peers who remained in public school, and more often, did considerably worse.
Furthermore, in far too many communities, the “educational choice” being offered is the opportunity to shield one’s children from intellectual and cultural diversity. Vouchers provide parents with tax dollars that allow them to insulate their children from one of the very few remaining “street corners” left in contemporary American society. Whatever their original intent, as vouchers work today, they are mechanisms allowing parents to remove their children from public school classrooms and classmates that may be conveying information incompatible with those parents’ beliefs and prejudices.
In virtually all states with active voucher programs, including Indiana, well over 90% of participating schools are religious. There is considerable evidence that fundamentalist religious schools are teaching creationism rather than science–but it isn’t simply the science curriculum that is being corrupted by dogma. As a 2021 article from The Guardian reported, those schools are equally likely to distort accurate history.
One history textbook exclusively refers to immigrants as “aliens”. Another blames the Black Lives Matter movement for strife between communities and police officers. A third discusses the prevalence of “black supremacist” organizations during the civil rights movement, calling Malcolm X the most prominent “black supremacist” of the era.
The textbooks reviewed by the Guardian are used in thousands of private religious schools–schools that receive tens of thousands of dollars in public funding every year. They downplay descriptions of slavery and ignore its structural consequences. The report notes that the books “frame Native Americans as lesser and blame the Black Lives Matter movement for sowing racial discord.”
As Americans fight over wildly distorted descriptions of Critical Race Theory–a manufactured culture war “wedge issue” employed by parents fighting against more inclusive and accurate history instruction- -the article correctly points out that there has been virtually no attention paid to the curricula of private schools accepting vouchers.
The Guardian reviewed dozens textbooks produced by the Christian textbook publishers Abeka, Bob Jones University Press and Accelerated Christian Education, three of the most popular textbook sources used in private schools throughout the US. These textbooks describe slavery as “black immigration”, and say Nelson Mandela helped move South Africa to a system of “radical affirmative action”.
The Abeka website boasts that in 2017, its textbooks reached more than 1 million Christian school students. The Accelerated Christian Education website claims its materials are used in “tens of thousands of schools.” One of its textbooks still refers to the civil war as the “war between the states,” and has a section titled “Black immigration”–characterizing the slave trade as “sometimes unwilling immigration.”
With respect to Reconstruction, the Accelerated Christian Education textbook contained the following characterization:
Under radical reconstruction, the south suffered. Great southern leaders and much of the old aristocracy were unable to vote or hold office. The result was that state legislatures were filled with illiterate or incompetent men. Northerners who were eager to make money or gain power during the crisis rushed to the south … For all these reasons, reconstruction led to graft and corruption and reckless spending. In retaliation, many southerners formed secret organizations to protect themselves and their society from anarchy. Among these groups was the Ku Klux Klan, a clandestine group of white men who went forth at night dressed in white sheets and pointed white hoods.”
Unsurprisingly, the books were equally biased against homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Science denial, bogus history and homophobia are unlikely to prepare students for life in contemporary American society.
The U.S. Constitution gives parents the right to choose a religious education for their children. It does not impose an obligation on taxpayers to fund that choice, and we continue to do so at our peril.