Vouching for Private Education

Anyone who has ever attended college knows that tuition costs can run right through the roof—landing students in piles of post-grad student loan debt. The same is true for parents who pay to send their children to private K-12 schools, hoping to afford their kids a better education.

The appeal of a private education isn’t hard to see: As public schools fight to receive already-sparse funds, they sacrifice many “extra” programs at the cost of maintaining core curricula. The result in many cases? A sub-par, albeit “free”, education. At private institutions, however, student tuition dollars often allow schools to offer better teachers leading smaller classes; improved access to arts, athletics, or other specialized programs; or in the case of the 68 percent of private schools (enrolling 80 percent of private-school students) that are religiously affiliated, the freedom to teach a particular theology. However, the same tuition fees that allow private schools to offer these benefits also prohibit many low- and middle-income students from taking advantage of them.

While Christians with an eye for public justice should support better access to quality, public education for all students in all areas, we also must rally behind the expansion of state-funded education vouchers, which currentlyoperate in 12 states. Vouchers aren’t the same as charter schools, which are more familiar, but they serve the same purpose: to help offset educational inequalities. Whereas a charter school system funnels money toward schools, a voucher puts directly toward individual students, who can use the funds toward tuition costs at any school, whether secular or religious. As a result, voucher programs help provide “equitable public funding [to students] without regard to the religious, philosophical, or pedagogical differences among the variety of certified schools.” To put it even more simply, in the words of the Center for Public Justice, voucher programs offer the “best means of covering tuition costs equitably for students at all schools.”

Yet that deceptively simple statement belies the true, long-running controversy over the programs. Some critics object on an academic basis, claiming that students who receive vouchers actually underperform on standardized tests. However, the most vocal critics have argued that school vouchers constitute state-funded religion. According to the National Education Association, a teachers’ union, “vouchers [circumvent] Constitutional prohibitions against subsidizing religious practice and instruction,” using taxpayers’ dollars to impose religion on unsuspecting pupils.

From a Christian perspective, though, the constitutional argument against vouchers fell in 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a voucher program in Ohio. The Court ruled 5-4 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that a school voucher program did not violate the First Amendment—as long as it met five particular criteria. According to the Court’s Private Choice Test, a program is valid if:

  • the program must have a valid secular purpose,

  • aid must go to parents and not to the schools,

  • a broad class of beneficiaries must be covered,

  • the program must be neutral with respect to religion, and

  • there are adequate nonreligious options.

Under the Supreme Court standards, voucher funds directly benefit the students although the funds pay the tuition at religious schools. Some lower courts also have lined up in favor of education vouchers, setting a precedent to continue such programs as long as funds allow. Most recently, the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state's school voucher program—the broadest program of its kind in America—is constitutional. (The Louisiana State Supreme Court recently ruled against its state’s voucher program, but on a different basis.)

In addition, students who receive vouchers to attend private schools generally improve their academic performance. According to the National Council for State Legislatures, “voucher recipients have generally performed at the same level on reading and math assessments” as their public-school peers—and low-income, minority students even show some gains when they receive vouchers.” Other research has found voucher recipients are more likely to graduate from high school than their public school counterparts; some Wisconsin and Florida schools even improved their public schools to boost student achievement scores after losing students to school vouchers and tax credits.

The only remaining argument against vouchers—which Christians and the NEA actually can agree—is that relying solely on vouchers as a means of improving education may create greater inequality in the long run. Vouchers do take advantage of vital tax dollars, which otherwise could be used to improve public education overall. On that point the NEA certainly is not wrong: The best option is to improve access to quality, public education for all students in all areas. But as is often the case with the trickiest public policy conflicts, such an ideal solution is not only impractical, but often unavailable. In many cases, if the voucher program were discontinued funds allocated for vouchers would not be budgeted toward improving public schools—thereby benefiting no students at all. Vouchers remain the best available compromise, maximizing justice for the greatest number of students in need.

One thought, as a postscript: A Christian argument in favor of school vouchers stands up at the university level as well; my private, Christian university education essentially was funded by a similar program. I received a merit-based, Washington state scholarship that I could put toward tuition costs at any in-state school—private or public, secular or religious. Unlike vouchers for elementary and secondary education, my state scholarship was not based on socio-economic status. However, its effect was similar: When I combined it with other scholarships I received, I could attend Seattle Pacific University for roughly the same cost as the University of Washington.  

As a result, I’m one of few students who can honestly say they hardly considered tuition costs when picking a college. For some reasons I don’t remember and others I still don’t entirely understand, I chose to attend the Christian school—and I paid for it largely with taxpayer funds. While I’m still standing in a large pool of debt, that pool would be much larger if it weren’t for what was—essentially—a voucher. Thanks for that, Washington state taxpayers.  

 -Melissa Steffan is a 2012 graduate of Seattle Pacific University with degrees in Communications – Journalism and Political Science. She is a former intern of the Washington Post and the Center for Public Justice, and she is the 2012-13 Editorial Resident for Christianity Today magazine. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissasteffan.