Written by Don Byrd

By selecting Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, President Trump placed a staunch school voucher advocate at the helm of national education policy. In her confirmation hearing, DeVos assured Senators that she viewed education policy decisions, including school voucher proposals, to be the domain of state and not the federal government.

During the last week, however, the President indicated that a nationwide expansion of vouchers would be central to his education reforms. In a speech to Congress on Tuesday night, President Trump called on lawmakers to enact legislation that would do just that.

Education is the civil rights issue of our time. . . . I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. . . . These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.

Then on Friday, the President visited a parochial school in Florida, applauding that state’s voucher program as a model.

In fact, like other voucher programs, Florida’s system (which includes a combination of vouchers and tax credits), funnels taxpayer money largely toward funding religious education. While the Supreme Court has allowed such schemes, they weaken religious liberty protections by subjecting religious schools to government oversight, and by requiring taxpayers to fund the promotion of religion. Even indirect funding like vouchers and tax credits achieves an objectionable result: the advancement of religion and religious entities is inextricably tied to the government purse. 

As the Baptist Joint Committee has long argued in opposing school vouchers, this is not a good church-state arrangement for either the taxpayer (who should not be forced to fund religion), the church (which may find its educational approach under government control), or the person of faith (whose free act of conscience is undermined when government tips the scales toward religion, or toward one faith over another).

Such programs also often conflict with state constitutional provisions barring government aid to religion. Most recently, the Florida Supreme Court declined to take up a church-state challenge to its tax credit scholarship program, leaving in place an appeals court’s determination that plaintiffs in that case (a teachers union) lacks standing to bring the suit.

It is unclear how federal legislation like the President is urging would promote voucher programs. The White House has not yet proposed or endorsed a specific policy. The LATimes speculates that a nationwide tax credit scholarship program might create national tuition assistance programs like Florida’s that could be used across state lines. Congress, they note, “could attach a tax credit scholarship to a tax reform bill in an effort to bypass the education committees and bring along some Republicans who want tax reform but might otherwise oppose vouchers.”

Stay tuned.