Ever since President-Elect Donald Trump tapped Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, the biggest objection to her nomination has hinged on her support for charter schools and school vouchers. Though many would prefer to link the two, the fact is, they are very different political concepts. We covered charter schools last week. This week, we’ll tackle school vouchers.
The basic premise behind school vouchers is that a family receives credit for a certain amount of money that they can then apply towards tuition at the private school of their choice. Money that otherwise, presumably, would have flowed into the public traditional and charter school sectors.
In addition to the usual arguments about how such a system diverts funds from needy school districts and/or skims away the best students and their highly-involved parents (an argument that is also applied to charter schools yet, strangely, not to NYC’s unzoned and gifted programs), the main red flag waved to convince voters to reject school vouchers is that, since parents can use the credit at any type of educational institution, a percentage of funds will inevitably be employed towards paying tuition at private religious schools.
This sounds like a clear violation of the separation between church and state. And it very well may be. I’m no constitutional scholar and wouldn’t presume to pass judgment.
But that doesn’t stop others from doing so. Self-described progressives like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (though I really have trouble with that designation; progressives want to change things and, at least when it comes to schools, the Mayor comes down strongly on the side of status quo) are staunchly against them.
Except, that is, when using public money to fund religious schools is the only way he can get his own pet project off the ground.
De Blasio was voted into office with a promise to provide “high-quality PreK for All” at no cost to parents. He swore that not only would every one of 70,000+ eligible four-year-olds be guaranteed a seat, but that every classroom would be headed by a teacher with a Masters in Early Childhood Education.
Having done the math (apparently something the Mayor didn’t bother with), I remember saying to my husband, “public schools are already overcrowded. Where is he going to find the space? And are there really 20,000(!) unemployed people in NYC with a Masters in Early Childhood Education?”
Turns out the answer to the latter was, “Nope.” And to the former, it was, “In Community Based Organizations (CBCs).”
And what do many many of these CBCs turn out to be? Spoiler Alert: Religious schools and faith-based daycare centers.
Actual demand for seats never matched what de Blasio kept insisting it was. And initial positive outcomes proved overstated. For instance, de Blasio happily touted a 2016 NYU study that he claimed proved that Universal PreK put children on the gifted school track. That’s not, in fact, what it said. All it said was that more of those children took the test; nothing about passing it.
Yet, despite the setbacks and the lackluster enrollment, the mayor insistes on opening more and more programs, even agreeing to let religious schools hold prayer breaks, if only they would join his initiative.
Prayer breaks! In “public” schools!
How exactly does that not violate church and state? Granted, parents can “opt out” their kids from prayer time. But, by that same definition, concerned families can opt out of using their vouchers for religious schools by… not using their vouchers for religious schools.
So for any New Yorkers up in arms over the possibility of their tax dollars being used to fund religious schools under the new Federal administration, be advised: locally, they already are.