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Voucher advocates like to point to Vermont as the nation’s oldest program. When it was started in 1869, it was intended to pay the tuition of students whose town did not have a public school. It has very little in common with the curren voucher movement, which takes its inspiration from the libertarian economist Milton Friedman, who wrote a seminal essay in 1955 proposing that all students should receive vouchers to attend the school of their choice. The group that was fastest to seize upon his ideas was Southern segregationists, who saw school choice as an effective way to keep their schools racially segregated. It took a dozen years until the federal courts and the U.S. Department of Education compelled Southern schools to desegregate their schools.
Meanwhile, Vermont’s voucher program continued undisturbed.
Today as education writer Anne Waldman of ProPublica explains, the voucher program funds a disproportionately large number of students from affluent families who choose expensive private schools, including out-of-state boarding schools like Exeter and Deerfield Academy.
“Vermont’s voucher program is a microcosm of what could happen across the country if school-choice advocates such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos achieve their vision. By subsidizing part of the cost of private schools in or out of state, it broadens options for some Vermonters while diverting students from public education and disproportionately benefiting wealthier families like the Bowmans.
“Vermont vouchers have been used to send students to ski academies, out-of-state art schools and even foreign boarding schools, such as the Sigtunaskolan School in Sweden, whose alumni include Sweden’s current king and former prime minister. Vermont paid more than $40 million in vouchers to more than 60 private schools last year, including more than $1.3 million to out-of-state schools, according to data received from the state’s education agency through a public-records request.
“Of the almost 2,800 Vermonters who use publicly funded vouchers to go to private schools in state, 22.5 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, according to state education data. (The data excludes out-of-state private schools.) By contrast, 38.3 percent of public school students in Vermont have family incomes low enough to qualify them for the lunch discount.”
Voucher advocates in other states will insist that they want vouchers for poor black and Hispanic students or for students with disabilities.
Such claims, however, are the first step towards the goal of making vouchers available for everyone.
Vermont sets no income limit for students who choose to use vouchers. However, the vouchers may not be used in religious schools, because the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1999.
Betsy DeVos has said many times that she seeks vouchers for every kind of school, including religious schools. Private and religiousschools set their own admissions requirements, so the schools choose the students. Public schools are required by law to accept all students, regardless of race, religion, family income, sexual orientation, language or disability status.