Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a long-time school choice advocate, and the education budget her department proposed a few months ago reflected that priority. Among other school choice initiatives, the proposed budget included a new grant program to study the impact of vouchers for private and religious schools. In addition, the budget would have reserved $1 billion of Title I dollars that serve the poorest children to go to those school districts that agree to allow students to choose which school to attend.
Given the Secretary’s priorities, it was a bit of a surprise that the House and Senate have uniformly rejected these elements of the education budget. While we have grave concerns about reduced funding for education overall, we are relieved that school vouchers have been dealt a setback, and thought we should take some time to explain why school vouchers are a health and wellness issue.
School voucher initiatives vary in their specifics, but all of them provide public funding that follows students to the school of their choice, even if that school is not their districted school, or even a traditional public school. School voucher advocates say vouchers give families more freedom to find the best school for their child. Unfortunately, voucher programs of this type ultimately have the effect of taking resources out of the least resourced schools.
Declining enrollment can be devastating to schools, particularly when certain services are funded on a per-pupil basis. Among the services that can be decimated by voucher programs are many that are essential to promoting student health and wellness, such as school nurses, paraprofessional staff that support disabled students, or physical education teachers.
Beyond this, school voucher programs tend to reinforce the segregation of low income students of color, as these students tend to be less likely to use vouchers but more likely to suffer from chronic health issues such as asthma, obesity and diabetes.
In addition, if voucher initiatives allow families to choose non-public schools, these institutions may not be subject to the same health and wellness requirements as public schools. While health and wellness requirements vary from state to state (and, in our opinion, should be stronger across the board) non-public schools do not always have to fully comply. In addition to general wellness policies that benefit all students, non-public schools may not have to fulfill Section 504 requirements, which can provide needed services and protections to students who have a range of health issues, such asthma or diabetes.
School voucher initiatives ultimately harm the health and wellness of our most vulnerable students. For now, the effort to encourage school choice on a national level has stalled, but it is important to remain vigilant at a state and local level as well.