School vouchers, Black Lives Matter and democracy

Kids with Black Lives Matter masks at Fight for 15 BLM rally against MicDonalds
Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter protest June 2020 Credit: Joe Brusky Milwaukee CC BY-NC 2.0

When a Milwaukee voucher school recently posted its opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement’s support of LGBTQ rights, the ensuing controversy lifted the curtain — albeit ever-so-slightly— on a long-standing problem.

Under Wisconsin’s voucher programs, billions of taxpayer dollars have been funneled into private schools that do not have to abide by basic antidiscrimination measures governing all Wisconsin public schools. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin taxpayers are being forced to financially support discrimination, and in the process undermine our democracy.

The recent controversy centers on Milwaukee Lutheran High School and its Aug. 4 Facebook post that the Black Lives Matter organization’s statements of support for LGBTQ rights “do not align with biblical views.” Venice Williams, a prominent African-American activist and minister whose son had just graduated from the school, responded on her Facebook feed, “Shame on You, Milwaukee Lutheran High School.” She went on to denounce institutions that “make their living off Black folks, as they, simultaneously, mock our existence and disregard our humanity,” and called on Black families to boycott the school. The student body is majority Black at Milwaukee Lutheran, and about 90% of all students received a voucher to attend last year.

Milwaukee Lutheran is affiliated with the Missouri Synod, a conservative Lutheran denomination that teaches not only that homosexuality is a sin, but also that the ordination of women is contrary to scripture. Like other voucher schools, Milwaukee Lutheran is allowed to sidestep Wisconsin’s pupil nondiscrimination law.

The law prohibits public schools from discriminating against a student in a range of areas, from sex to pregnancy, marital or parental status, sexual orientation, race, religion, creed, ancestry and disabilities (whether mental, emotional or physical). Private voucher schools, however, can choose when and if they will follow the law. The only requirement is that the voucher schools follow federal prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. 

But that’s just the beginning. For instance:

  • Unlike public schools, private schools do not have to honor basic constitutional rights such as due process when a student is expelled or suspended, or rights of free speech and association.
  • Unlike public schools, private schools can circumvent federally mandated protections for students with special needs, and are only obligated to provide services that require minor adjustments. (The state has begun a special-needs scholarship program, but most voucher schools do not participate.)
  • Unlike public schools, private schools do not have to adhere to the state’s open meetings and records laws. As a result, the public does not have any reliable way to find out if a voucher school may be teaching that women are inferior to men, that homosexuality is a sin, that abortion is murder, that climate change is a lie, or that the Bible must be interpreted literally. 

This surreal, Twilight-zone reality stems from a fundamental problem with the state’s voucher programs: a school can define itself as private even if 100% of its students receive a public voucher. And, once defined as private, it can circumvent most state laws governing public schools.

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.

In essence, Wisconsin has set up two inherently unequal systems, one public and one private, yet both funded by public tax dollars. And the amount of taxpayer dollars going to voucher schools is staggering.

In 2019-20 alone, more than $350 million in taxpayer dollars went to more than 300 voucher schools in Wisconsin. The oldest program, in Milwaukee, received more than $2.6 billion between 1990 and 2019, according to state financial figures. In about half the Milwaukee schools, 90 percent of more of the students received a voucher — meaning that the school would not exist if it weren’t for the voucher program because it doesn’t have enough private-paying students to survive. Yet it can still define itself as “private.”

The overwhelming majority of Wisconsin’s voucher schools are religious, which further complicates the problem.

Under the First Amendment’s separation of church and state, government is not to “entangle” itself in the oversight of a religious institution. The amendment is integral to our democracy, recognizing that religion is a highly personal matter and must be beyond government control. But the voucher program has distorted this all-important concept of religious freedom and is asking taxpayers to subsidize religious beliefs that are at odds with public policy — and not just regarding students. 

Wisconsin law, for instance, bars discrimination in employment in a variety of areas, from age to disability, marital status, and sexual orientation. However, exceptions are made for religious institutions. And in 2009, the Wisconsin Supreme Court dismissed the case of a first-grade teacher who claimed age discrimination when she was fired from a Catholic school in La Crosse. The Court said the complaint unconstitutionally restricted the school’s religious freedom. 

More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in July that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers at church-run schools, in a case involving two teachers whose contracts were not renewed at Catholic schools in California. One teacher learned she had breast cancer and her contract was not renewed. The other teacher had sued for age discrimination.

When the Milwaukee voucher program began in 1990 and was expanded a few years later to include religious schools, there was little outcry over diverting tax dollars away from public schools and into private schools. At the time, our democracy seemed strong enough to survive a few nicks and dents. Besides, at that time the program only involved Milwaukee and most state legislators and voters didn’t pay much attention. With the statewide expansion of vouchers in 2013, however, matters changed.

There is also growing awareness of the importance of our public institutions, from the right to vote to our public schools to our local post office. 

As the Trump era has made clear, abandoning public institutions not only undermines the common good, it also threatens our democracy.