Conservative education reformers have aggressively marketed the expansion of K–12 private school voucher programs as a method to increase access to educational options. Their arguments begin to break down, however, when asking the questions, Access for whom? And to what?
The types of voucher-centered school choice schemes promoted by both President-elect Trump and Betsy DeVos, his nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education (ED), like most programs in education policy, are administered by states and localities. Trump’s open denigration of the Department of Education’s civil rights and standards oversight functions further indicate that a DeVos ED will place few stipulations on how states receiving federal funds for vouchers must design and implement those programs.
Some of those voucher programs might look something like the highly discriminatory North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Act. Established by the state legislature in 2013, the program offers low-income and working-class families state-funded tuition scholarships to private schools of up to $4,200. In some ways, the Opportunity Scholarship might seem innocuous. Private schools receiving state funds are required to test scholarship recipients (though notably not with state tests for direct comparison, and there is virtually no obligation for public disclosure), and most students must have spent time in public schools prior to private school enrollment to be eligible—conditions that are missing in other programs in states like Indiana and Wisconsin. But even the quickest examination of the types of schools taking taxpayer money reveals that state dollars are, in actuality, too often funding discrimination.
An overwhelming number of the more than 400 private schools registered in the program are religiously affiliated. Although a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that vouchers used for religious school attendance do not violate the establishment clause, the primary issue with North Carolina’s program is not that the schools themselves are religious, but that too many condition admission and retention on dogmatic adherence to specific religious doctrine, usually excluding those who are LGBTQ or come from non-churchgoing families.
Religious and LGBTQ Discrimination
Alamance Christian School (ACS) received $121,132 in public voucher funds during the 2015–2016 academic year, all while maintaining an official, publically available admissions policy that explicitly bars all faiths outside of Christianity, along with children from families that are “Catholic, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, Christian Science” and more. To confirm that they are from the “right” type of Christian family, children seeking admission must produce a pastoral reference. Then, before enrolling, all middle and high school students are expected to sign a commitment form pledging to refrain from “homosexual/bisexual behaviors, or any other biblical violation of the unique roles of males and females.”
And ACS is not some random oversight, a school hiding out within the list of eligibles despite a uniquely restrictive profile. Instead, it reflects the biases of several other schools that are partially funded by the dollars of taxpayers, some of whom aren’t allowed to send their children to those very institutions. For instance, one of the schools receiving the most public money, Fayetteville Christian School (receiving more than $285,000 in 2015–2016) has near identical restrictions, requiring regular church attendance of applicants and parents, issuing the following statement on their website:
The student and at least one parent with whom the student resides must be in full agreement with the FCS Statement of Faith and have received Jesus Christ as their Savior. In addition, the parent and student must regularly fellowship in a local faith based, Bible believing church. Accordingly, FCS will not admit families that belong to or express faith in non-Christian religions such as, but not limited to: Mormons (LDS Church), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims (Islam), non-Messianic Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. Accordingly, FCS will not admit families that engage in illegal drug use, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality (LGBT) or other behaviors that Scripture defines as deviate and perverted. Once admitted, if the student or parent/guardian with whom the student resides becomes involved in any of the above activities it will be grounds for dismissal of the student/family from the school. (Also see pages 9 and 28 of the Student Handbook)
At Raleigh Christian Academy, which collected about $233,000 in state money through the voucher program, the administration mandates that “no young man do anything which might detract from his masculinity,” calling anything other than that narrowly and vaguely defined masculine ideal “an abomination before God.” The school also reminds its female students that “Satan desires to take away from a lady’s feminine qualities.” Not only are the identities of gender non-conforming and other LGBTQ students under attack in many “Opportunity” schools, these students—along with straight student whose families fail to conform to specific religious doctrine—have abridged options, even as their parents pay tax dollars to a state that rubber stamps their exclusion.
Troubling patterns emerge once again when assessing actual costs to poor families. Many of the schools, particularly the most popular participating private schools, have tuition and fees that extend beyond the maximum $4,200 limit, and next to none of them provide transportation for Opportunity Scholarship students to be able to get to and from their chosen school site. Other schools charge additional fees to enroll in advanced or gifted classes. FCS, for example, bills students an extra $1000 to enroll in their gifted program, potentially setting up a system academic tracking by income. At Liberty Christian Academy (where it’s also worth noting that the administration reserves the right to reject or expel children due to their LGBTQ identity), high school students who wish to take dual enrollment courses must pay an additional $750 per course—fees not covered for low-income students. Liberty collected a check for over $260,000 for the 2015–16 year.
The students who qualify for North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship are by no means wealthy. Disguising limitations as options, the scholarship provides low-income families with just enough money to go to mostly academically unvetted private schools, oftentimes requiring that they pay additional tuition above and beyond state allocated funds while finding time and money for transportation. The Opportunity Scholarship does this by stripping money from North Carolina Public Schools. Already one of the most underfunded public school systems in the nation, state public school funding was cut by $11 million to make room for these vouchers, leaving children and families who cannot or will not attend private schools in increasingly cash strapped public programs.
Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural Biases
Private schools are not required to follow the same anti-discrimination statutes as public schools, but overt racial and ethnic exclusion have thankfully fallen out of fashion. The non-public schools certified to accept Opportunity Scholarship applicants say on their websites that they do not racially or ethnically discriminate in admissions. This is a good start, but it does not mean that racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity are valued, or even desired in these schools.
Many biases are subtle. A number of the schools in the program are notably less racially and ethnically diverse than the counties that surround them. One example is Freedom Christian Academy ($178,911), also in Fayetteville, which is about 18 percent African-American, while the city that hosts it is 42 percent African-American. When its student handbook details dress and grooming expectations, it quizzically mandates that afros must be of “modest size,” though the length of non-course female hair is mandated in no such way. Another school banned scarves in the hair of female students—a move that could be interpreted as targeting young women who choose to wear hijab.
Even if instances like this do not set off alarm bells, education advocates should look closely at the racial and cultural messages presented to students through the textbooks used at a large number of these schools. Bob Jones University Press textbooks and Pensacola-based A Beka Books curriculums are two of the most popular teaching tools. These books are not used for Bible studies or devotionals, but rather in science, math, and history lessons. Bob Jones University Press history textbooks have famously taught facts such as “The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well”; and that the Klan tried to fight the decline in morality by using the cross, targeting “bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies.” And past A Beka Books have outrageously made claims including: that “God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ”; that the continent of Africa is in great need partly due to Communists who have shut it off from receiving the gospel; that Roe v. Wade enslaved unborn children in the way that Dred Scott v. Sandford enslaved blacks; and that global environmentalists are seeking to “destroy the prosperous economies of the world’s richest nations.”
Free for Whom?
North Carolina politicians and the organizations that fund them present this program as a step towards “educational freedom.” But is this system truly free for the child expelled from their school for holding hands with a student of the same sex? Is it free for a Jewish child whose presence at many of the schools receiving money is forbidden and deemed a threat to their mission? Does this program represent freedom to the poor gifted student who cannot participate in certain advanced classes or gifted programs because of the additional fees involved, or for her working parents, who have to struggle to find a way for their child to get to and from the school building? Is a Muslim student free when their dress code forbids headscarves, and is a black girl sporting her natural hair free to express herself when some schools place restrictions on how long she can grow it? What about freedom for the student who is or has been pregnant in the past, now barred from certain state-aided private schools because of proven past sexual activity?
By passing and promoting this North Carolina Opportunity Act, the state is treating large populations of its young people as second-class students. Funded by state money, these schools continue to use the taxes of some families whose children would never be permitted to learn in that environment—not due to merit, but due to who they are, how they pray, or who they love. Betsy DeVos’s track record of voucher and charter promotion reveals a reckless disregard for how these most vulnerable students experience this system into which they are less likely to be accepted and protected. Under a Trump/DeVos plan, we should expect to see more voucher programs like North Carolina’s emerge, dressed with the glittery names of opportunity, choice, and freedom. Do not be fooled. The opportunities are exclusionary, the choices are constrained, while the freedom belongs to largely unregulated private schools to discriminate on the public dime.