Vouchers are a form of government subsidy given to parents for use toward tuition and related expenses in private and parochial schools as an alternative to attending underperforming public schools.
Vouchers are ultimately harmful to education because they divert money from public schools (where a majority of all school-age children are enrolled) to private schools (where the public has no control over how those public dollars are spent), while doing nothing to improve public education. Although many school voucher programs ostensibly aim to assist low-income and minority students, a voucher is almost never enough money to help a poor child make the leap to private school. Most proposed voucher programs neither prohibit participating schools from charging tuition and fees in excess of the value of the voucher - which thereby keeps the cost out of the reach of most families -- nor require participating schools to accept all applicants.
The "choice" in "choice programs" thus lies with private school administrators, not with parents. Many civic groups have touted vouchers as a solution to our country's educational woes, but calls for vouchers are symptoms of problems with our educational system that require us to invest money and creativity into our public schools rather than contribute to their difficulties by taking away needed funding and support.
Because many voucher schemes allow tax dollars to be used at religious schools as well as secular schools, the constitutionality of voucher programs comes into question. For the most part, thus far, the lower courts have ruled that such proposals amount to government funding of religious institutions, a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. State courts in Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maine, Arizona and Florida have struck down voucher aid to religious schools. Only the Wisconsin Supreme Court has upheld vouchers.
However, in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Cleveland, OH school vouchers program as constitutional, reversing lower court decisions to the contrary. In the case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Court ruled that because the voucher money went to parents who then made independent and private decisions as to which school to spend it on, the program only aided religious schools indirectly and thus did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Although the Court found this particular program constitutional, the Court has yet to rule any other vouchers program as such, leaving considerable doubt as to the blanket constitutionality of vouchers programs overall.
For more information about case and the criteria established by the Court to determine the constitutionality of this voucher program, read the case analysis from Americans United for Separation of Church and State here.
The Reform Jewish Movement traditionally opposes voucher programs because of their dubious constitutionality and their destructive effect on the nation's education system.