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When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in 2016 to hear arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, school voucher advocates saw an opportunity.
The case actually revolved around the specific question of whether the state of Missouri could refuse a grant to resurface a playground to a church solely due to the fact that the church is a religious institution.
But a broad enough ruling in favor of the church could dismantle so-called “no aid” provisions that states have enacted to ensure that state resources for public schools were not diverted to private religious institutions. This was the invitation voucher proponents made to the nine justices.
On Monday, the court turned down the offer.
In a 7-2 ruling, the justices ruled that while Missouri could not refuse a playground grant to a church solely due to the fact that the church is a religious institution, the court was not “address[ing] religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.” In other words, the ruling was not a green light for school vouchers.
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Educators and parents across the country should applaud the court’s refusal to place in doubt decades of precedents enforcing state constitutional protections of our public schools.
It doesn’t matter how their backers try to disguise them — “education savings accounts,” “tuition tax credits,” “opportunity scholarships” — vouchers are a destructive and misguided program that take scarce funding away from public schools, where 90 percent of America’s students attend, and give it to private schools that are unaccountable to the public.
Unlike public schools, private schools have almost complete autonomy with regard to how they operate: who they teach, what they teach, how they teach, how — if at all — they measure student achievement, how they manage their finances, and what they are required to disclose to parents and the public.
While there are no data to support the claim that voucher programs increase the opportunities for low-income children to attend higher-performing schools, there is considerable evidence that voucher programs increase the “opportunity” for more affluent families to receive public subsidies for private education.
In Indiana, the largest voucher program in the nation has morphed into an entitlement program which, in large part, does nothing to close the achievement gaps for low income students — a false promise lobbyists claimed it would do if enacted. In fact, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients have never attended public schools, so Indiana taxpayers are subsidizing private school education for many students whose families could already afford it.
This slow but steady expansion of voucher programs is being duplicated elsewhere. It’s become a familiar story; voucher bills are rebranded and targeted towards specific populations — low-income students or students with special needs, for example — to make them more politically palatable.
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Once the legislation is implemented, eligibility requirements are soon eased, and funding is increased. Meanwhile, funding for public schools is further eroded, leaving students with less of what they need to succeed.
Shifting massive amounts of valuable (and limited!) taxpayer money away from public schools to pay for private school vouchers is the cornerstone of the Trump-DeVos budget, which slashes the federal investment in public education programs by a whopping 13.6 percent, while providing $1.4 billion in spending on voucher-type programs — a costly seal of approval of a scheme that has experimented with our children’s education without any evidence of real, lasting positive results.
The best option for our students has and always will be strong, well-funded schools in their own neighborhoods. Improving public schools requires more money, not less, and public money should only be used to help public schools.
Lily Eskelsen García is president of the National Education Association, a labor union representing three million educators. She is also the 1989 Utah Teacher of the Year. She tweets at @Lily_NEA and blogs at www.LilysBlackboard.org.
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