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by John M. Suarez, M.D.

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 14, Number 2.

School Vouchers - Yesterday, Today and Forever

Public Education has been the main target of the Radical Religious Right from the beginning. This is understandable because a viable and efficient system of Public Education is incompatible with the establishment of a theocracy. The Radical Religious Right has concluded that it is necessary to malign Public Education as a step toward the goal of attrition through denial of funding. School vouchers, despite inherent constitutional flaws and perennial absence of popular support, continue to be promoted in a variety of settings and in different packages.

The proponents' basic argument is that school vouchers provide educational choice for all, regardless of social or economic status. Most people (interestingly, not all!) subscribe to the notion that a ghetto child should have the same access to a good education as a rich child. In the typical scheme, the government (federal, state or local) provides the family with a voucher. The voucher, worth a predetermined amount, is used as (part) payment when the child is enrolled in a particular school. The school cashes in the voucher with the government for publicly raised tax dollars. As discussed below, even if the implementation follows the original concept, true choice is not likely to be achieved, not to mention the constitutional problems.

Arguments pro and con school vouchers have changed little over the past three decades. Below is a brief summary of the proponents' main arguments and the appropriate rebuttals.

  1. People support school vouchers and parochiaid in general.

    - As elaborated below, proponents have failed in over 20 referenda over the past 30 years.

  2. School vouchers will create and insure parental choice.

    - Vouchers will pay for only a fraction of tuition and other expenses in most private schools, thus keeping them out of reach for the economically disadvantaged. Even if available, it is the private school that will have full control over who is admitted or not.

  3. Competition will improve public schools.

    - There is no evidence to support this claim. Private and public schools do not "compete" on an even playing field. Instead, vouchers will drain the already limited budget of Public Education.

  4. The public school system is a failure, beyond repair.

    - Recent studies strongly contradict this position. Anecdotal data are being used effectively by the Radical Religious Right to convey this erroneous image.

  5. Private schools provide a better education than the public school system.

    - Available studies reveal that private schools do not perform better than comparable public schools. In addition, recent data reveals that participation in "choice" programs does not improve student performance.

None of the above, of course, deals with the Constitutional issues of violation of the First Amendment and the abrogation of the wall of separation between church and state. The Fundamentalists do not initiate any such discussion. When confronted they respond that they have a different interpretation of the First Amendment and the wall of separation is a myth, or that such a violation or disruption is necessary and well worth it.

Interestingly, while the Radical Religious Right persists in pushing us in the direction of parochiaid, in Canada the trend is clearly the other way. Quebec's provincial assembly voted unanimously to end church control over education and move to language based schools. In 1995 Newfoundland decided to discontinue tax supported religious schools in favor of a US style public school system, and the province's voters overwhelmingly approved it in a recent referendum. Also, Ontario's practice of provincial tax support for only Catholic schools is finally coming under significant scrutiny and challenge.

As alluded to above, there have been at least 22 referenda efforts around the country attempting to legitimize school vouchers over the past 30 years and they all failed. Understandably, the Radical Religious Right does not give up because undermining Public Education remains a necessary step on the way to achieving their theocratic goals. In addition, more recently, there have been legislative actions toward the same end. This is possible only when the conservatives have sufficient control of the governmental body involved. And so, the Wisconsin legislature (July, 1995) expanded the original Milwaukee project to include parochial and sectarian schools. In 1995, also, the Ohio legislature enacted a pilot voucher program for the city of Cleveland. In May, 1996, the town of Chittenden, Vermont, which does not maintain a high school, voted to provide payments for students to attend a local Catholic high school. There are related developments in Minnesota, Arizona and Maine. In every known instance, the First Amendment watchdog organizations have filed prompt challenges to the unconstitutional moves, and it is only a matter of time before one of the cases finds its way to the US Supreme Court.

Opponents of school vouchers have done a splendid job, judging from the referenda defeats alone. We have been generally effective in pointing out the illogic of the proposed schemes and the ways in which the First Amendment is dangerously violated. But there is another weapon in the arsenal that has not been utilized enough. Two publications from the group Americans for Religious Liberty (i.e., "Visions of Reality What Fundamental Schools Teach" and "The Case Against School Vouchers", particularly chapter 5, "Fundamentalist Textbooks; Teaching Bigotry") have exposed the activities of Fundamentalist Christian schools and the related home schooling movement. They show how their primary educational goal is to protect their youth from the diversity of contemporary American society. Fundamentalist texts promote sectarianism, religious intolerance, anti-intellectualism, disdain for critical thinking and science, and conservative political extremism. If the American populace were made aware of what is going on, the socio-political opposition to school vouchers would rise sharply.

A Gallup poll released in August, 1997, has been interpreted by some as reflecting a decrease in popular opposition to school vouchers, although there is a major debate as to the wording of the key questions. Nevertheless, the Radical Religious Right (including the Christian Coalition, other extreme organizations, the Catholic Bishops and Republican leaders in Congress) has expressed encouragement and has pledged expanded efforts to promote parochiaid in numerous ways. In the spring of 1997 "The American Community Renewal Act" was introduced in both the House and the Senate. It contains several sections that clearly violate the principle of separation of church and state, including the establishment of vouchers for use at religious and other private schools.

Other new strategies involve the dropping of unpopular words like "vouchers" in favor of "parental choice" and "opportunity scholarships". As to "parental choice", it is still the schools and not the families who do the choosing. In the case of "opportunity scholarships", a few selected children get to attend private school, while the rest remain in the existing public school system, now further decimated by the absence of the dollars used to create the scholarships. As Sandra Feldman, President of the American Federation of Teachers, put it, "Vouchers do not mean reform - no matter what name you give them. What they do mean is a radical abandonment of public schools and public education."

Allowing for the dust to settle, school vouchers, even after undergoing cosmetic changes and deceptive repackaging, remain both a scam and a hoax. They are a scam because the true purpose has been and remains the undermining and ultimate elimination of Public Education. They are a hoax to the economically deprived because they cannot deliver the seductive promise of educational opportunities on a par with wealthy families. We freethinkers must remain ready to join forces with the popular mainstream in continuing to oppose ongoing efforts to the introduction of school vouchers, a practice that seems destined to persist into the foreseeable future.

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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