School Vouchers: A Cruel Policy of Discrimination and False Competition

In February of last year, Education Secretary Betsy Devos proposed a new $5 billion dollar tax credit that would fund scholarships at private schools, as well as other programs within the private sector, per reporting by The New York Times. School vouchers, similar to ones used in Indiana, would take money from public education and create a set amount to give to people to spend on private schools, leaving any remaining money at the parents’ discretion—something Devos has a history of endorsing. The politician has long been an advocate for the expansion and use of so-called ‘school choice,’ and has the necessary connections needed to bolster her advocacy. According to reports from Business Insider, Devos was the director of the Alliance for School Choice and was once the head of the Michigan Republican Party. To put it lightly, supposed school choice advocates like Devos are in a good position, federally speaking. Indeed, Devos has a powerful coalition of political figures backing her agenda of “school choice,” with President issuing a statement, celebrating National School Choice Week in 2018. In Indiana, the state with the most extensive voucher program in the country, Secretary Devos gave $1.3 Million to various pro-voucher organizations when she was chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher organization.

That being said, Devos’s well-connected political connections are not the demographic the Secretary is focused on. Rather, she would have many believe that the voucher programs are a boon to the most vulnerable members of our society and provide an opportunity and alternative to the currently slow and inefficient traditions of public schools. In her announcement of the program, Devos went bold, saying, “The biggest winners will be America’s forgotten children, who will finally have choices previously available only for the rich, the powerful and the well-connected.” Now, I could editorialize about how the money is going primarily to religious schools, possibly violating the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment, as Heather Weaver of the ACLU has noted. Yet, that point has been repeated ad nauseam and fundamentally disregards the human impact that this policy has on everyday people—disabled students, specifically.

On the surface, it would seem that school vouchers and the well-being of disabled students do not correlate with one another. However, the exact opposite is true; Devos’s policy directly harms disabled students. Under current federal law, known as IDEA, public schools must provide protections and accommodations to students with disabilities. However, these requirements don’t exist for private schools, even ones that receive federal funding. A Government Accountability Office report found that for the years 2016 to 2017, 83 percent of students enrolled in a program designed for students with disabilities were in a program that did not discuss the changes in their accommodations and rights or even contained falsehoods. Many people are not aware of what they are getting into, and, more fundamentally, they do not realize what they are losing under these voucher systems. If this is about choice and the liberty of vulnerable students and their families, then some accurate information is a necessity, not to mention a change to the statutes of IDEA.

The impacts of such a shift in policy are not minute either; it is not a small portion of the student population who will suffer the consequences of this convoluted series of policy debacles. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 14 percent of students in public schools—7 million people—were in some form of special education, 35 percent of whom had a learning disability. There are too many people to thrust into a system that fails to provide adequate protection to them. I would imagine that at this point voucher supporters will argue that the parents can choose to keep their children in public education, and that is true, but that alone misrepresents what the consequences of that choice are like. As previously stated, private schools and voucher systems have been inadequate at informing the parents about their child’s rights; thus, many will not make a genuinely informed choice. To add to this complicated and frankly dreary picture, IDEA is already grossly underfunded, with only 16 percent of IDEA’s expenses covered by the federal government in 2016—despite its promise to fund IDEA at 40 percent of its expenditures. As vouchers are supported by tax dollars, the inevitable result of school voucher programs will be the use of funds from the public school system, leaving even fewer resources to maintain protections for disabled students. In effect, there is no choice for disabled students and their families. People can either go into a system that provides no guarantee of protection or wait in the old system and hope it is well-funded enough to protect you. Is this what Secretary Devos means when she says she wants school-choice? If so, I want no part in this harmful nonsense.

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Conor J. Kelly was the Opinion Editor for the Lorian and a prolific staff writer. He graduated from Loras College in April of 2021 and is now pursuing his master's in political science at the University of Illinois, Springfield. You can find his new work on The Progressive American newsletter.

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