School vouchers in Milwaukee, religious freedom and discrimination
By Barbara Miner April 17, 2015 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
As the recent Indiana controversy has made clear, anti-gay bigotry is no longer publicly acceptable even when cloaked with rhetoric of religious freedom.
It’s a lesson that, sooner or later, Wisconsin will have to confront. But not because the state has a law similar to Indiana’s. Unfortunately, Wisconsin permits an even more disturbing practice. It not only allows respect for religious freedom to be used as a cover for discrimination, but also forces the taxpayer to pay for that discrimination.
Wisconsin’s taxpayer-funded bigotry, which includes but goes beyond homophobia, has been cleverly disguised as “school choice.” It’s complicated, so a bit of history is necessary.
In 1990, the Wisconsin legislature established a voucher program in Milwaukee under which public dollars paid the tuition at private schools. The program was billed as an experiment to improve academic achievement and was limited to a handful of schools. In order to be considered truly “private,” schools could have no more than 49% of students receiving a voucher. Religious schools were not allowed.
Over time, conservatives eliminated such restrictions as part of their vision of replacing public education with universal vouchers. Today, more than 26,000 Milwaukee students receive vouchers and 112 schools take part; it is the country’s largest and oldest urban voucher program. Test scores are no better than in public schools, so “school choice” has become the defining rationale.
Significantly, limits have been lifted on the percentage of voucher students in a school. As a result, every single student in a Milwaukee voucher school can receive a publicly funded voucher, yet the school is still defined as “private.” Last year, most of the schools enrolled predominantly voucher students; 27 schools were 100% voucher students.
With the growth of charter schools, the voucher program almost exclusively benefits religious schools, and some 89% of voucher students in the Milwaukee program attend a religious school.
Wisconsin also has a two-year-old statewide voucher program that only includes religious schools, and a four-year-old program in Racine where all but one school is religious-based.
Religion is a highly personal matter, and this country’s long-standing defense of religious liberty is a hallmark of our democracy. But the voucher program has distorted this all-important concept of religious freedom.
The problem is most clear when one looks at Wisconsin law that prohibits discrimination against students in public schools — a law that voucher schools can ignore.
Wisconsin has a long history of protecting students’ rights, in line with the 1848 state constitution that called for free public schools for children of all races and religious beliefs. Over time, rights have expanded and Wisconsin now prohibits discrimination in a range of areas, including disabilities, pregnancy, marital status, parental status, sex and sexual orientation.
In 1998, when religious schools were allowed to take part in Milwaukee’s voucher program, a controversy erupted. As part of the application to become a voucher school, the state Department of Public Instruction included a letter outlining students’ rights that were to be respected. The rights included not only nondiscrimination measures, but also constitutional protections of due process, equal protection and freedom of speech.
The religious schools vehemently disagreed with the DPI. They argued that as private institutions, they were exempt from such mandates.
The state Legislature forced DPI to agree that voucher schools merely had to sign a letter acknowledging that they had received a letter outlining the students’ rights. The letter specifically noted that such an acknowledgement was not an admission that the students’ rights applied to the voucher schools.
Unfortunately, the tensions involving religious liberty, voucher schools and public policy go beyond respect for students’ rights.
Many voucher schools adhere to religious teachings that homosexuality is wrong, sex outside of marriage is a sin and artificial birth control is contrary to the law of God. As religious voucher schools often point out, they do not separate their beliefs from their curriculum. Children are taught such views.
I attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school and came of age at a time when the church was focused more on social justice than on sex and sexuality. I understand the positive role the church can play. But I also understand that the Catholic Church is anything but a democracy.
As a woman and a citizen, it’s upsetting that my tax dollars are being used to promote discriminatory beliefs that violate not only my personal beliefs, but are also at odds with public policy.
Nor are we talking insignificant amounts of money. Since vouchers began in Wisconsin, more than $1.8 billion in public dollars has been given to private voucher schools. This year alone, the three voucher programs in Wisconsin will receive $209 million in taxpayer funding.
Conservatives have used the rhetoric of “choice” to mask the legislatively sanctioned discrimination within the voucher program. They have been equally skillful in corralling debate into whether voucher schools should take the same tests as public schools — an important but ultimately narrow discussion.
The fundamental question is why schools that are completely dependent on public tax dollars get to define themselves as private and play by vastly different rules than public schools.
History moves unevenly. For a range of reasons, these contradictions have not yet come to the fore in the debate on school vouchers in Wisconsin. But they will.
Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based journalist and the author of “Lessons from the Heartland; A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City” (New York: New Press, 2013.)