You may have heard this argument before. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have both promoted private school K–12 voucher programs by comparing them to the vastly more popular federal college Pell Grant program. At DeVos’s confirmation hearing, Alexander mused, “Each year that’s $29 billion in new Pell grants, and nearly $100 billion in new student loans—all vouchers. Why is [this] such a great idea for college students such a bad idea for K–12 students?”

While the Pell Program could be considered a type of voucher, any quick, blanket equation of Pell and private school K–12 voucher programs potentially jeopardizes K–12 public schools, and risks loosening protections for their students, who are more likely to be minority and low-income.

The Pell Grant and the federal financial aid system differs from K–12 voucher programs in at least six critical ways.

1. Civil Rights

Federal college aid programs, like the Pell Program, are subject to a full battery of federal laws, most notably civil rights laws. These include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination; and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ensuring protection for those with a disability. Institutions that violate the civil rights of students or employees are subject to sanctions and loss of access to financial aid.

In contrast, state administered K–12 voucher programs rarely have to follow all of these guidelines. This is allowed, often at the insistence of voucher advocates, to let private schools more easily evade federal laws and oversight, such as these civil rights statutes. Because the government is not directly funding private schools, these institutions can continue to use discriminatory policies in admissions, enrollment, discipline, services provided, and hiring—all the while still benefiting from indirect public tax dollars. This means that, for example, a student in a private voucher-accepting school is not guaranteed federal protection if her school fails to provide a learning environment safe from sexual harassment; or if she gets expelled for becoming pregnant; or if she is disciplined for expressing attraction to other women or a nonconforming gender identity. And as a general rule, Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) rights will not extend to children with disabilities who participate in voucher programs. Under Arkansas’s Succeed Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities, parents must sign an acknowledgement that, by enrolling a child in a private school, the parent waives the procedural safeguards granted under the IDEA. In Georgia, accepting a special needs voucher has the same legal effect as refusing special education services. This lack of protection prompted the ACLU to file a 2011 complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice requesting that it investigate systemic discrimination against and exclusion of students with disabilities by private schools accepting vouchers in Milwaukee.

Even if some state K–12 voucher programs might choose to adopt more stringent civil rights requirements than others, current proposals from this administration—and past federal voucher bills—would place very few requirements on them to do so. In effect, a voucher-using child’s civil rights protections could disappear as he or she moves across state lines, even though both state programs would continue to receive federal assistance.

2. Quality Assurance

As others have previously highlighted, oversight mechanisms in K–12 voucher programs are largely undefined in comparison to higher education counterparts.

If an institution of higher education chooses to participate in the voluntary federal financial aid program to access Pell Grants, it must acquire approval from a three-legged stool of higher education quality assurance: 1) federal recognition through the Department of Education, 2) state authorization and licensure, and 3) outside accreditation. These three legs, together, are an attempt to ensure that all institutions participating in the federal financial aid program:

  • follow federal guidelines under the Higher Education Act;
  • provide students with a quality education;
  • have met requirements within their state of operation to provide an education; and
  • receive proper accreditation as a requirement for accessing Pell Grants and other federal financial aid.

While this accountability trinity is far from perfect, it is designed to protect students and taxpayers from the worst actors who may abuse the financial aid system.

Meanwhile, existing proposals around K–12 voucher programs highlight local and state control, while giving families their school of choice, but ultimately provide few guidelines for how schools must serve students and families. Voucher proposals take federal taxpayer dollars and send the money to private, religious, and for-profit schools that likely do not meet the requirements for schools under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). ESEA is a monumental piece of civil rights legislation that defines the role of schools and guidelines schools must follow to address inequality gaps in education. Providing taxpayer dollars to schools not in compliance with ESEA (recently reauthorized as ESSA, Every Student Succeeds Act) would allow institutions to avoid guidelines that are designed for institutional accountability, like proper teacher certification, or data collection and reporting obligations.

3. Religion and Indoctrination

Few people would dispute that an eight-year-old is far more impressionable than an eighteen-year-old. Yet many voucher proponents continue to claim that aiding religious elementary and secondary schools is the same as providing college assistance to religiously affiliated institutions. Even the U.S. Supreme Court recognized differences in the 1971 case Tilton v. Richardson, where it noted that, when compared to grade school students, “college students are less impressionable and less susceptible to religious indoctrination.” It also pointed out that the structure of a typical high school—controlled schedules, confined facilities, high levels of parental and teacher supervision—differs significantly from the open, more fluid, more autonomous environment of a college campus. In short, college students are not only better equipped to draw their own conclusions about faith and religion, they are also much more likely to be given space to practice that religious belief (or lack thereof) as they see fit, even in religious schools.

College students are not only better equipped to draw their own conclusions about faith and religion, they are also much more likely to be given space to practice that religious belief (or lack thereof) as they see fit, even in religious schools.

Finally, in Tilton, the Court distinguished aid to religious colleges from aid to religious K–12 schools on the basis that most colleges are not “pervasively sectarian”—meaning that religious indoctrination is not a primary function of these church-related colleges. Private elementary and secondary schools often make the development of faith as well as religious knowledge and values part of their mission statements; voucher programs are also likely to promote this division by religion between schools. An earlier Century Foundation commentary pointed out several K–12 voucher-receiving schools in the state of North Carolina that include explicit language that indicates that religious development is paramount to the missions of these schools.

4. Encouraging More Education

Grant aid like Pell is essential to addressing the underconsumption problem facing higher education today. Researchers agree that on average, a college degree provides lifelong benefits to those who are able to obtain one, including greater social and economic mobility, higher adult earnings, greater social capital and civic participation, and even improved health outcomes. In addition, research has shown that by 2020, over 65 percent of jobs in the United States will require some level of postsecondary education. But as our nation’s need for a highly qualified workforce grows, we are starting to see an underproduction of credentials within our workforce. This is in large part because higher education is viewed as expensive and unaffordable. Even with a robust financial aid system, for many low-income students and families, the cost burden puts these credentials out of reach.

When education is compulsory for families to send their children up to a certain age, they cannot and should not be expected to pay out of pocket in order to be compliant.

Herein lies a major difference between higher education and the K–12 system: while higher education is still largely viewed by our society as a choice with a cost, K–12 is required by law, and in every state, is offered for free. When education is compulsory for families to send their children up to a certain age, they cannot and should not be expected to pay out of pocket in order to be compliant. There also is no underconsumption problem to solve. Voucher programs are designed to make more options available to all Americans; however, they are not guaranteed to cover full tuition, and can leave low-income students and families with extra costs if they plan to participate in honors courses, extracurricular activities, or after-school educational programs supplemental to their education.

5. Diversion of Funds

As we saw last month in the president’s budget proposal, funding for K–12 schools is limited, and the proposed voucher programs would create a trade-off scenario in which money could be funneled away from programs that support schools in low-income areas or programs designed to support low income families. Specifically, this could be cutting Title II after school programs or teacher training programs, or supplanting funding high need areas with less money to support their students. This diversion of funds takes public dollars and redirects them to private entities. Because federal K–12 funding allocates a set amount of money each fiscal cycle, a student who might receive a voucher through a federal program like Title I would deplete the program’s bottom line.

Pell Grants are different for a couple reasons. It is treated as an entitlement, so no matter how many individuals qualify, they have access to the program. Therefore, its funding is unclear and can create shortages and surpluses in appropriated dollars. But this also means, due to its design, that money can go to any type of institution of higher education—public or private—without funneling money away from other programs.

6. Different Effects of Socioeconomic and Racial Diversity

For many low-income families, even the cheapest higher education options can be expensive. Pell grants, only awarded to students with low expected family contributions to college, are usually awarded to students whose families make under $30,000 and would struggle to finance a bachelor’s or associate’s degree on their own. Upon receiving aid, these economically disadvantaged students—many of whom also add racial diversity—are then better able to enter into parts of the higher education system that are populated disproportionately by wealthy, white students. Currently, at selective colleges, students from the richest quarter of the population outnumber students from the most disadvantaged quarter by fourteen to one. Pell can help to diversify otherwise homogenous spaces by providing access and incentive to those who need it most.

Pell can help to diversify otherwise homogenous spaces by providing access and incentive to those who need it most.

Meanwhile, the effect of K–12 vouchers on school diversity is much murkier. In fact, vouchers were once used throughout the American south to fund lower-income white families’ exodus from the desegregating public school system after Brown v. Board of Education. Today, some data on private school enrollment also supports a pattern of “white flight” and “wealthy flight” from the public sphere. A 2002 study found that the “strongest predictor of white private enrollment is the proportion of black students in the area.” In a recent report, Century Foundation senior fellow Halley Potter concluded that vouchers were ineffective—and perhaps counterproductive—in bringing about school diversity. For example, when she analyzed a study of Louisiana’s state voucher program, she determined that two-thirds of school transfers either increased segregation or had no effect in mitigating it.

Private school vouchers also are unlikely to benefit the most economically disadvantaged students, even when voucher programs are means-tested. If scholarship funds offered do not meet full tuition costs and there is no transportation provided, then many low-income families will have to struggle to participate. Moreover, choice programs, because they require access to knowledge about opportunities, typically benefit the most advanced subset of students eligible.

Being Honest About Vouchers and Pell

On the surface, it might seem reasonable to compare federal financial aid programs and school vouchers. But such comparisons ignore the significant differences in regulations, funding, demographics, and administration between the K–12 and higher education systems. Federal financial aid programs, which still suffer from serious flaws, are far more likely to have student safeguards than are state-administered but federally supported K–12 voucher systems. As politicians and pundits continue to try to equate the two in order to better justify the privatization of the K–12 education system, it is important to remember the nuances of this complicated set of policies.