Funneling public tax dollars to private schools in the form of school vouchers poses risks to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) students and teachers as well as the children of GLBT parents, and does nothing to improve the quality of public education, according to National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Elizabeth Toledo.
"It is laudable that George W. Bush wants to make education issues a priority in his administration," Toledo said. "But we should put the focus on improving public schools. We cannot improve public schools by taking away funding and shifting it to private religious institutions. Such a move, in addition to being bad public policy and violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, also threatens the safety of GLBT students and children of GLBT parents as well as the job security of GLBT teachers."
Toledo noted that the overwhelming majority of the 20,000 students who are currently enrolled in pilot voucher programs attend sectarian schools, which have as a central focus of their mission the teaching of religion. Typically, voucher programs do not require that religious schools receiving public funds ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. This means that in the vast majority of states that lack sexual orientation nondiscrimination laws covering employment or education, teachers in voucher schools may be fired because of their sexual orientation and students may be banned from attendance.
"One of our primary objections to vouchers is that public schools are accountable to the public, to parents, to elected school boards and ultimately, to the U.S. Constitution," Toledo said. "Private, sectarian schools are not accountable to the public, to elected officials, nor to the U.S. Constitution. There are many avenues that lead to improving education. Removing accountability is certainly not one of them."
Toledo said another problem raised by voucher legislation deals with the curriculum taught at sectarian schools. "Will the curriculum be based on tolerance and inclusion?" Toledo asked. "Will the libraries in religious voucher schools include books that reflect the reality of GLBT people? Unfortunately, private religious schools do not have an outstanding track record in the area of teaching inclusion and respect."
Toledo challenged backers of school voucher legislation to amend Bush's proposal to require that any private school receiving tax dollars enact policies that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation for students and teachers. "We are adamantly opposed to school vouchers because strengthening our public schools requires a commitment, and vouchers are an abrogation of that commitment," Toledo said. "But at the very least, proponents of school vouchers should demonstrate that under their plan, GLBT students and teachers will not face discrimination."