Religious School Vouchers: An Obstacle to Education Reform

By Boston, Rob | The Humanist, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Religious School Vouchers: An Obstacle to Education Reform


Boston, Rob, The Humanist


SUPPORTERS OF EXTENDING tax aid to religious schools through vouchers argue that private institutions do a better job than public schools. It is morally wrong, they argue, to keep children in failing public schools when there are private alternatives available. Furthermore, they assert that if low-income parents are unable to afford these private options, the taxpayer should chip in.

There is one serious flaw in this argument: So far there is no evidence private schools, most of which are religious in nature, are doing a better job teaching low-income children. In some cases, they may even do a worse job.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in what I believe was one of its worst church-state opinions ever, upheld voucher aid for religious schools in 2002. Since then, the debate has shifted away from the constitutionality of vouchers to their effectiveness.

The American public remains deeply skeptical that vouchers are effective or necessary, and polls continue to show a majority opposing them. States don't come any redder than Utah, yet last year voters there overturned a voucher law that had been passed by the state legislature. In short, Americans see the need for reform in education, but most want the focus to be on public, not private, schools.

With public opinion against them, voucher advocates are digging in. But research continues to debunk their claim that private schools do a better job and thus deserve public support. For example, in Milwaukee, which has the nation's oldest voucher program, studies have repeatedly shown voucher students doing no better academically than their public school counterparts. And now a new study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program that was released in February (called the most comprehensive to date) also shows that children who transfer to private schools using vouchers fare no better than their peers who stay behind in so-called "failing" schools.

"The baseline results indicate that [voucher] students in grades 3-5 are currently scoring slightly lower on the math and reading portions of the [state scholastic aptitude test] than their [public school] counterparts" reads the report. Results from students in grades 6-9 were statistically equal.

The study was conducted by a team led by Patrick J. Wolf of the University of Arkansas and John F. Witte of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They are objective researchers who don't have a stake in the outcome. The team plans to continue studying the program for five more years.

Just days after that study came out, another researcher determined that students attending Catholic elementary schools make no more progress in reading than similar students in public schools, and they do even worse in math.

"I was actually surprised to find that Catholic schools are worse in mathematics;' Sean E Reardon, the study's lead author and an associate professor of education and sociology at Stanford University, told Education Week. "But, if Catholic schools aren't subject to the same accountability requirements as public schools are, then they may not spend as much time on mathematics and literacy"

Make no mistake: A parent can spend thousands of dollars a year sending a child to an elite private academy, and the child will probably receive a top-flight education. Tuition at Sidwell Friends School, which educates many children of the wealthy and powerful in the Washington, DC area, tops $26,000 a year. …

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Religious School Vouchers: An Obstacle to Education Reform
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