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.
- People support school vouchers and parochiaid in general.
- As elaborated
below, proponents have failed in over 20 referenda over the past 30 years.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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