School Vouchers: The Debate Heats Up Across the U.S.

Vouchers are becoming more common—but are they the right solution?

Vouchers give families more choices, but opponents argue that there needs to more accountability. (Photo: Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

School vouchers continue to be a subject of massive controversy.

This week a Washington Post investigation uncovered that students’ voucher dollars aren’t always used for accredited schools. Instead, it found that some students were using their vouchers to attend a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront and a school “built around the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist.”

Publicly-funded vouchers are becoming more common as the school choice movement gains momentum. Vouchers allow parents to take their state per-pupil funding to attend a private school of their choice, which is often parochial. Since vouchers seldom cover the entire tuition, parents also cover costs.

More: Florida Public Schools Banking on Vouchers?

In many cases, such as in Washington, it becomes murky if private and religious schools that receive these state- or federally-supported vouchers must abide by state academic standards or rules. It’s also unclear if vouchers are funding religious schools.

That’s the case currently in Indiana. On Wednesday, the state’s Supreme Court justices heard arguments regarding a challenge brought by the Indiana State Teachers Association to a 2011 law under which more than 9,000 students switched from public to private schools with help from state funds.

Under Governor Mitch Daniels, Indiana has built the nation’s largest state-wide voucher system aimed at all students, a first-of-its-kind in this country. Typically, voucher programs, like the one in Washington, D.C., are touted for low-income students

Attorneys in the Indiana case argued that nearly every voucher funds schools affiliated with churches that, in turn, promote their religious messages.

School vouchers are an ever-growing issue in this country, pushed in large part by conservative politicians, especially in statehouses around the country.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) often supports voucher legislation in states. Its website heralds the Indiana program.

Meanwhile, the National Education Association is against vouchers “because they divert essential resources from public schools to private and religious schools, while offering no real ‘choice’ for the overwhelming majority of students,” according to a statement on their website.

As many legislatures return to session in 2013, vouchers are slated to be a hotly debated subject.

Voucher opponents in Arkansas are already gearing up for a battle when the state’s legislative session starts in January. Georgia, too, is bracing for another legislative attempt for vouchers in its next legislature session. North Carolina and Wisconsin may also introduce legislation to expand statewide school choice. 

In Louisiana, where Governor Bobby Jindal recently signed a new school voucher program into law, one religious school was approved to increase enrollment through vouchers. But critics argue that the school doesn’t have facilities, and they only use DVDs to teach students.

Voucher supporters say opponents should stop the criticizing the D.C. program and others around the country.

Kevin P. Chavous, a senior advisor from The American Federation for Children, said in a release, “It's shameful for perpetuators of the educational status quo to disregard the long list of accountability measures present in the program and its improvement of students' reading scores, and to downplay the importance of increased graduation rates.”

He adds, “Accountability has become a hallmark of high quality private school choice programs.”

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