School vouchers and the separation of church and state

Teachers’ unions are walking out, schools are not passing national requirements and American students are falling behind the international competition in math and reading. Though myriad solutions have been offered by politicians and other leaders, one of the most consistent and pervasive is the implementation of a school voucher system.

Vouchers allow families to use public funds for private-school tuition and creates private alternatives for students in low-performing schools. When vouchers are an option, many parents head straight for religious schools – often Christian, but also increasingly Muslim. Opponents see this use of federal money as a violation of the separation of church and state. Republican legislators have pushed the issue with a national voucher proposal, but the issue is being argued state by state, program by program, depending in part on the exact wording of each state constitution.

In March 2013, the Indiana Supreme Court echoed the 2002 ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court when it decided that vouchers were not a violation of the separation of church and state. Several other states, including Wisconsin, Mississippi and Ohio, have voucher programs in place along with the federal government’s program for victims of Hurricane Katrina. 


The term “school choice” refers to a variety of reform programs, magnet schools, charter schools, and transfer programs that let students use vouchers or tax credits at private schools or higher-functioning public schools. The first program was a five-year experimental voucher program in Alum Rock, Calif., in the 1970s. Ohio began a pilot voucher plan for the Cleveland schools in 1995. Milwaukee, Wisc., Florida and the national program for refugees of Hurricane Katrina are among the largest in the nation.

There are currently 16 school voucher programs in the U.S. in nine states and the District of Columbia. However, only 7 of those programs provide aid to students from low-income families or those attending failing school.  The rest of them are programs specifically designed for special needs students or kids living in rural areas that lack a nearby public school.

Why it matters

The issues at the heart of the voucher debate also impact other aspects of government funding. Should government money help finance religious education? Are religious schools better than public schools? Should private and religious schools receive government support, even if it’s at the expense of public schools? Should taxpaying parents have the right to direct where those taxes are spent – in religious or secular schools?

Religion is central to the school choice debate because many voucher proponents want parents to be able to send their children to religious schools. Others fear that such programs will blur the line of church-state separation or discriminate against minority faith groups because so many of the private schools that would benefit are Christian.

U.S. Supreme Court

On June 27, 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case upheld the Cleveland voucher plan. The court ruled 5-4 that the plan did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which states that Congress shall make no law establishing a religion. The court held that the vouchers were intended for the secular purpose of helping children from low-income families attending failing schools – and that any decision to spend the scholarships at religious schools was the result of the private decisions of individual families.

In 1996, the Ohio Legislature adopted a voucher program for the Cleveland schools – a response to years of dissatisfaction with the educational performance of the city’s public schools. The program gave students scholarships that could be used at private, parochial or other alternative schools.

The Florida decision

On Jan. 4, 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a school voucher plan in the state, saying that the program was unconstitutional and that it channeled tax dollars into “separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools.” The court said the voucher program violated a section of the Florida Constitution that states: “Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools.” Both supporters and critics agree that the Florida Supreme Court ruling can’t be appealed because no federal issues are involved.

Two other larger Florida voucher plans – one for disabled students and one that gave tax credits to businesses providing money to a scholarship fund to send students from low-income families to private schools – were not immediately affected by the 5-2 ruling, although its language could have implications for them down the road.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, established the Florida voucher program, called Opportunity Scholarships, in 1999, as a central piece of his education reform effort. It was the first statewide voucher system and allowed 733 students from low-performing public schools – most of them black and Hispanic children – to attend private schools with vouchers, at a cost of $3 million a year.

A new bill introduced in the Florida House of Representatives May 2013 aims to implement a school voucher program by using money dogeared for public schools to fund more private educations.


In December 2005, President Bush signed a law giving students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita access to $1.6 million in emergency federal aid they could use during the current school year to attend schools in cities where they’d relocated. The students could use the funds to attend private and religious schools.

News articles

  • “Louisiana Supreme Court rules school voucher funding unconstitutional”

    On May 7, 2013, The Supreme Court of Louisiana ruled that the state’s voucher system was unconstitutional. The court said that the money going towards the program and the private schools the vouchers are used towards should be used towards the public school system instead.

  • “Republicans Propose National School Voucher Program”

    On July 18, 2006, Republicans proposed a $100 million national school voucher program that would let low-income children in underperforming schools move to a different public school or a private school, including religious ones.

  • “Comparing Private Schools and Public Schools Using Hierarchical Linear Modeling”

    Voucher critics said the U.S. government report “Comparing Private Schools and Public Schools Using Hierarchical Linear Modeling,” released on July 14, 2006, shows that private schools are not significantly outperforming public schools, while U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings discounted the study. The study examines math and reading scores of private and public school students.

  • “Court Throws Out Florida School Voucher Program”

    Listen to a Jan. 16, 2006, story from National Public Radio’s Morning Edition about the Florida Supreme Court ruling that the voucher program violates the state constitution and the difficulties the voucher movement faces.

  • “The Real Voucher Winners”

    Read a July 2, 2002, story from that examine the potential impact of vouchers on Muslim schools.

National sources

  • Council on American-Islamic Relations

    The Council on American-Islamic Relations says it is the largest advocacy group for Muslims in the U.S. It advocates for Muslims on issues related to civil liberties and justice. Contact communications director Ibrahim Hooper in Washington, D.C.

  • Ira C. Lupu

    Ira “Chip” Lupu is F. Elwood and Eleanor Davis Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School and a church-state expert who writes frequently about the faith-based initiative. In a January 2009 Q-and-A with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Lupu said that the trend has been toward greater church-state partnerships.

    He is also co-director of the Project on Law and Religious Institutions and the Legal Tracking Project for the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, a part of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. The Roundtable posts a resource page on school vouchers with legal analysis.

  • Rand Corp.

    The non-profit Rand Corp., based in Santa Monica, Calif., does research analysis on various issues to improve policy and decision making.  Contact Jeffrey Hiday, director of media relations.

    The organization has done research evaluating school voucher programs and the quality of education provided by public and private schools.

Supports vouchers

  • Institute of Justice

    A public interest law firm based in Washington D.C. that litigates on cases where people’s civil rights are being restricted.

    Contact: (703) 682-9320 ext. 205.
  • The Center for Education Reform

    The Center for Education Reform is an organization based in Washington D.C. devoted to changing the current education system structurally, influencing policy and creating better media practices when covering education.

  • Alliance for School Choice

    Alliance for School Choice is an organization in Phoenix that works to provide more educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. Contact through communications director Malcolm Glenn.

  • Black Alliance for Educational Options

    Black Alliance for Educational Options is a national nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C. The alliance works to support parental choice and increase quality educational options for African-American students. Contact through Tanzi West, director of communications.

  • Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

    The Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice is based in Indianapolis and works to educate the public and policymakers about school choice issues. Contact through Susan Meyers, national media relations director.

  • Margaret Spellings

    Former Secretary of Education (2005-2009) under President George W. Bush. She was one of the main supporters of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. She now works at the education consulting firm she founded, Margaret Spellings and Company.

  • William F. Davis

    The Rev. William F. Davis is deputy secretary for schools on the Committee on Public Policy and Catholic Schools for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.


    Davis has argued that Catholic schools are second to none in their ability to serve all children – including disadvantaged children. Read the transcript of remarks he made at a conference sponsored by the Faith and Reason Institute, on the question of “Are Vouchers Good for Catholic Education?”

Against vouchers

  • American Jewish Committee

    The American Jewish Committee is an international think tank and advocacy organization that works to identify and fight anti-Semitism and bigotry, protect human rights and protect Israel and Jewish life everywhere. Its executive director is David Harris. Contact via Jon Schweitzer, director of public affairs.

  • People for the American Way

    People for the American Way, based in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen the separation between church and state.

  • National School Boards Association

    The National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Virginia, is a non-profit that works to support school board members across the country and to further the goals of public education.

  • Cato Institute

    The Cato Institute is a public policy research organization dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace.

  • Americans United for Separation of Church and State

    Americans United for Separation of Church and State describes itself as a “nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving church-state separation to ensure religious freedom for all Americans.”

  • Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

    The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is an umbrella organization of 15 Baptist bodies that work to promote religious liberty. They advise member denominations on religious liberties issues. It is based in Washington, D.C. Its executive director is Amanda Tyler, with J. Brent Walker serving as a consultant to the organization.

    The committee contends that using vouchers at private, religiously affiliated schools amounts to government support of religion and violates the consciences of taxpayers who disagree with what those schools teach. The committee filed an amicus brief (along with several Jewish groups) in the case decided by the Florida Supreme Court.

  • National Education Association

    Based in Washington D.C. but with branches in every state in the country, the National Education Association is the largest teacher’s union in the U.S.

    The group contends that voters generally oppose vouchers and that money spent on vouchers should be spent to improve public education. See its extensive voucher page.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Charles L. Glenn

    Charles L. Glenn is a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Boston University. He wrote “P.C. Censorship of Textbooks” for The Journal of The Historical Society (2004) and The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-Based Schools and Social Agencies.. He has written on children, religion, and education.

  • Kenneth Wong

    Kenneth K. Wong holds the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Chair in Education Policy at Brown University in Providence, R.I. He also is director of the school’s Urban Education Policy Program and was the founding director in 2004 and 2005 of the National Research Center on School Choice, Competition and Student Achievement.

  • Cecilia E. Rouse

    Cecilia Elena Rouse is a professor of economics and public affairs and dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

  • Clive Belfield

    Clive R. Belfield is associate director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. He also is an assistant professor of economics at Queens College, City University of New York.

    Belfield is the author of a study on the Cleveland voucher program, which concluded that academic performance did not improve for participating students, but religious preference did play a role in which schools they selected.

  • Joseph Viteritti

    Joseph Viteritti is the Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy and Chair of the Urban Affairs & Planning Department at Hunter College in New York City. He has also served as Faculty Chair of the Public Policy Program at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.

    He is the author of Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution and Civil Society (Brookings Institution Press, 1999) and gave expert testimony in the Cleveland voucher case.

  • Robert A. Destro

    Robert A. Destro is a law professor and founding director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law and Religion at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. He is an expert in freedom of religion, constitutional law (separation of powers), international human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of association, bioethics, marriage law and civil rights.  Destro served as a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1983 to 1989.


    He wrote an amicus brief for the Center for Education Reform in favor of the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program and represented the governor of Wisconsin and others in voucher litigation in Wisconsin. Destro says the voucher debate is about control of publicly financed education – including what role religion should play – and the roots of the debate go back to the early 1800s.

  • Paul Peterson

    Paul Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Editor-In-Chief of Education Next, a journal of opinion and research.


    He supports vouchers and has argued that they have improved the test scores of African-American children from the inner city (although some dispute that). Peterson is editor in chief of Education Next, a journal on education policy. He also edited The Future of School Choice (Hoover Institution Press, 2003) and co-authored The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools (Brookings Institution Press, 2002).

In the West

  • Alex Molnar

    Alex Molnar is a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Arizona State University and director of the school’s Education Policy Studies Laboratory.

  • E. Vance Randall

    E. Vance Randall is a professor of educational leadership at the school of education at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He wrote “Religious Schools in America: Worldviews and Education” and “Culture, Religion and Education” for the book Confronting Our Cultural Pluralism: Religion and Schooling in Contemporary America (Garland Publishing, 1997).

  • Bruce Fuller

    Bruce Fuller is a professor of education and public policy and education at the University of California at Berkeley. He has studied decentralization in public education, including the development of charter schools and voucher programs. He also is co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent research center on education policy.

  • Steven K. Green

    Steven K. Green is a law professor at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. He has written law review articles about the church-state issues that voucher programs raise and has filed amicus briefs in both the Florida and Cleveland school voucher cases.

  • Martin Carnoy

    Martin Carnoy is a professor of education and economics at Stanford University.

    He is the author of School Vouchers: Examining the Evidence (Economic Policy Institute, 2001) and also is a co-author of The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement (Teachers College Press, 2005). Read an opinion piece he wrote, originally published in the The USA Today and now posted on the Economic Policy Institute web site, in which Carnoy argues that not enough evidence has been presented that vouchers improve student performance.

In the Midwest

  • Thomas C. Berg

    Thomas C. Berg is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. He is a leading expert on church-state issues and has written on religious land use questions. He supports the rights of religious organizations to choose members based on religion and sexual conduct. He has also written about religious speech in the workplace.

  • Thomas Pedroni

    Thomas Pedroni is an assistant professor in the department of teacher development and educational studies at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. He has studied the involvement of African-American and Latino parents in supporting voucher programs.

  • Amy Hanauer

    Amy Hanauer is executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit group in Cleveland that studies public policy issues related to economics.

    She has analyzed the Cleveland voucher program and concluded in a 2002 report that nearly all the students using vouchers were enrolled in religious schools.

    In the South

    • Lawrence Kenny

      Lawrence Kenny, an economist with the University of Florida at Gainesville, has analyzed the results of studies on vouchers. He argues that other states may have more success with voucher programs despite the Florida ruling and that support builds as people become more comfortable with vouchers.

    • Laura Underkuffler

      Laura Underkuffler is a law professor at Cornell Law School in Ithica, N.Y. and has written about religious discrimination.

    • James G. Dwyer

      James G. Dwyer is a law professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. He has worked on issues such as school choice, family law and children’s rights.

    • Jay P. Greene

      Jay P. Greene is endowed chair and head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a nonprofit public policy institute in New York.

    • Kathy Miller

      Kathy Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network, a grassroots organization of religious and community leaders based in Austin that advocates for “a mainstream agenda of religious freedom and individual liberties to counter the religious right,” according to its website.  Contact through communications director Dan Quinn.

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