ACLU misleads public, lawmakers

Patrick Gibbons

Nevada’s lawmakers this week were subjected to a few half-truths about the governor’s proposed education voucher program from school superintendents and the ACLU of Nevada. Vouchers are tax dollars that are given to parents so they can send their child to any public or private school they choose. School funding is thus directed by parents rather than central bureaucrats.

Vouchers do not result in discrimination as the ACLU claimed. In fact, private schools are better at serving low-income students, teaching mentally handicapped students, increasing racial diversity, and teaching tolerance and civility:

  • One and a half percent of special-needs students are placed in private schools by public schools that cannot meet their needs.
  • Public schools do not have to teach every child. Public schools expel 1 percent of their students every year and send another 0.6 percent to special schools for troubled kids.
  • Seven respected academic studies have found that vouchers increase racial diversity.
  • Thirty-three studies found that private-school students possessed more “democratic values” like tolerance, civic knowledge, political participation and volunteerism.

The ACLU misrepresented vouchers by claiming that the program would only help the wealthy because the voucher is not enough to cover private-school tuition. This is intellectually equivalent to claiming food stamps don’t help the poor because they don’t cover the full cost of food.

It is true that vouchers are set below the cost of traditional public schools, but several voucher programs require that private schools do not charge additional tuition. Nevertheless, in 2004 the U.S. Department of Education actually estimated that the average private school cost $3,300 less per pupil than traditional public schools. Furthermore, 15 states plus Washington, D.C., offer voucher/tax-credit programs that are designed specifically to serve special-needs students, foster-care students, autistic students and low-income students.

  • The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program offers scholarships of up to $7,500, while D.C. public schools spend over $20,000 per pupil. Only low-income students are given access to the vouchers.
  • Florida and Arizona offer special-needs scholarships. The average scholarship in Florida is just $6,500 – $3,000 less than the cost of a public school. The average scholarship in Arizona is $8,100 – roughly the same amount a public school receives per pupil.
  • Florida and Arizona also offer low-income scholarships financed through corporate and personal donations. The scholarships average just $3,900 and $2,500, respectively – far less than what the public schools receive.

Furthermore, nine out of 10 random assignment studies have shown that vouchers improve student achievement. Studies also show that vouchers improve graduation rates and improve a student’s chance of attending college. Sixteen out of 17 studies even show that public schools improve when faced with competition from vouchers.

The reality is public schools have done a terrible job at serving those who need help the most. Fewer than half of low-income, black and Hispanic students in Nevada can read at grade level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Clearly, public schools have failed these underserved communities as well as every other Nevadan.

While it is true that Nevada has a constitutional provision prohibiting tax dollars from funding religious schools – we note this amendment was added to Nevada’s constitution as anti-catholic bigotry swept the nation in the 19th century – Nevada can avoid a constitutional challenge by either offering vouchers for secular education or implementing a tuition tax-credit program, as no parental choice opponent has beaten tuition-tax credits in court. The Institute for Justice, however, is confident that vouchers could pass constitutional muster in Nevada. Afterall, vouchers are aid to parents and students, not to churches.

The governor’s voucher proposal is a workable solution that promises to improve student achievement by empowering parents with real choices.

Read more about parental choice programs at the Foundation for Educational Choice.