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The following is republished, with permission, from the Winter 1997 issue of Reform Judaism. The issues raised in this article should be of concern to all individuals concerned about their own religions and about freedom of religion for all.

I have added my own comments in Italics within brackets.

David Ross

What's Wrong with School Vouchers?

by Samuel Rabinove

In recent years, the national debate over vouchers has gathered momentum. It became an important issue in the 1996 presidential campaign. Voucher bills are now on the agenda in Congress and in at least thirty state legislatures, despite past rejections in Oregon (1990), Colorado (1992), and California (1993), and a ruling last May by the Ohio District Court of Appeals declaring a program offering vouchers to poor families in Cleveland to send their children to religious schools unconstitutional, a violation of church/state/ separation. In January, a Wisconsin state court judge struck down Milwaukee's voucher program for parochial school students. The U. S. Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the constitutionality of tax-funded vouchers for religious schools, but the issue is sure to come up.

[Five years after Rabinove wrote his commentary, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that taxes could be used to fund vouchers to send children to parochial schools. However, I do not believe this issue is closed. In the future, someone of one religion will again challege the use of his or her taxes to indoctrinate children in another religion. In the meantime, by permitting government funds to flow to parochial schools, the Supreme Court did not prevent government controls from following those funds.]

Here are some of the major pro-voucher arguments and responses from opponents.

The public schools would benefit from competition. They could be stimulated to do better if we gave students a choice to attend non-public schools at public expense.

Real competition has to be fair competition, which requires a level playing field between public and non-public schools. Public schools must accept all children who apply. Non-public schools may be selective, and many of the are very "choosy" indeed. Unlike public schools, they also have every right to expel pupils who are disruptive or who, for whatever reason, are unable to meet their standards. In general, public schools enroll a much higher proportion of poor, disadvantaged minority and immigrant children than do private schools. Thus, the playing field is not level.

[Education is a labor-intensive activity, which requires money. How can under-funded public schools compete when even more money would be drained from public education?]

Parents whose religious conscience precludes them from using the public schools are in effect taxed double when they also pay tuition for their children's mandatory secular education in denominational schools.

In fact, all citizens, including single persons, childless couples, and retired couples, pay taxes to support public schools, regardless of use. No one is taxed to support a religious school any more than one is taxed to support a church or synagogue. However, tax subsidies to private schools which the public cannot control would truly constitute "double taxation" of other taxpayers; in fact, it would be "taxation without representation." Voucher tax dollars would be spent according to the policies and directives of a private school board, not through the decisions of a democratically elected and publicly accountable public school board.

[Generally, schools are funded according to enrollment or actual attendance. When a parent sends a child to a private school, the local public school receives no tax funds for that child. No, the parent does not receive a credit; the taxes are instead diverted to police, fire, parks, etc.]

As voucher money would flow to parents of all children to use as they may choose, not directly to sectarian schools, it is not a benefit to religion and hence does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In fact, the primary beneficiaries of any voucher legislation would be religious schools, which comprise 87% of non-public schools. Under the Establishment Clause, it is not a proper function of government to subsidize schools, directly or indirectly (through parents), whose chief purpose is to propagate a religious faith of any kind. Further, most of these schools teach children that only one brand of religion (their own) meets with God's approval and, at least implicitly, all other religions are false.

[Any person who seriously practices a religion should be concerned about his or her mandatory taxes supporting a different religion. Further, any taxpayer should be concerned about his or her taxes being used by the government to subsidize the operation of a program for which there are no government-imposed standards on that operation; yet imposing standards on church-operated schools would also violate the First Amendment.]

Free exercise of religion, guaranteed by the First Amendment, is an empty shell for parents who lack the necessary funds to implement their religious convictions, which require that their children be educated in their own denominational schools.

Free exercise of religion means freedom from governmental impediment. It was never intended to mean freedom from private expense, any more than the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press entitles newspaper publishers to government funding. Religious parents who cannot afford religious school tuition payments should be aided voluntarily by their respective faiths, not compulsorily at the expense of the public treasury.

[If free exercise of religion means the taxpayers should subsidize parents to send their children to parochial schools, then it should also mean that taxpayers should subsidize my congregation's operations so that I will have a place to worship.]

A voucher system would aid financially pressed Jewish day schools, which play a key role in Jewish continuity. [Remember, this is republished from a Jewish magazine.]

While some tax dollars would be made available for Jewish day schools under a voucher system, vastly more tax dollars would flow to other religious schools whose beliefs and teachings may be deeply antithetical to those of Judaism or to the best interests of American Jews. If any faith's private schools are subsidized by the state, so must those of every other faith or ideology, bar none.

[This reply must be extended to include taxes from Mormons paying for vouchers used at Baptist schools, taxes from Catholics being used at Hindu schools, and taxes from Moslems being used at Scientology schools.]

Private schools do a better educational job than public schools.

In fact, private school students on average score only slightly better than those in public schools, Moreover, when one factors in the differences between the socioeconomic backgrounds of students in the two types of schools, the private school advantage disappears. Studies that take this background factor into account have found a public school advantage in achievement.

[In other words, when a private school and a public school both with students from the same social and economic backgrounds are compared, the public school is often slightly better than the private school. This argument insults the public schools in my community, which are among the best in California, public or private. The public schools in neighboring communities are also excellent. However, these are all relatively small school systems that remain generally unnoticed. Only the failures of the very large school systems attract attention, but these school systems actually contain a very small proportion of the nation's students. The smaller public school systems — succeeding in their assigned task of educating our youth — contain an overwhelming majority of public school students.]

Giving parents a choice between public and private schools would increase accountability in all schools.

Private schools do not have to account to the public, not for their admissions and discipline policies, not for the nature or the quality of their educational programs, and not for their spending or their academic results. This is not unreasonable; how private schools operate is none of the public's business. For example, in science classes they can teach religious dogma, like creationism. In certain respects, they have a right to discriminate. Public schools, on the other hand, must adhere to all laws and policies related to standards, access, curriculum, teacher certification, and non-discrimination.

If, however, private schools were to receive public funds, "with the king's purse eventually comes the king." Public dollars would arrive with strings attached, with possible serious implications for the independence of private schools. For instance, would Jewish day schools be willing to hire non-Jewish teachers and enroll non-Jewish students? Is so, at what cost to their Jewish educational mission?

[Today, I can vote for school board members for the public schools funded by my taxes, even though my children are now adults and no longer in school. Public schools are accountable to all citizens, not just parents. If my taxes are used for vouchers, it is insufficient for private schools to be accountable only to parents. I would want private schools receiving vouchers accountable to me, offering the kind of education that I and other taxpayers deem appropriate.]

Private school vouchers would cost the public less and would improve educational quality in all schools, especially for poor children.

It is not clear that vouchers for private schools would improve their quality, though vouchers would probably result in higher tuition fees at many private schools, which would absorb much, if not all, of the amount of the vouchers. As for the impact of vouchers on educational quality in public schools, the cost of each voucher would be skimmed off the top of the public education budget, whether local, or state, and funnel to private schools. This financial drain would be at the expense of public schools, many of which are already experiencing acute shortages of funding and taxpayer resistance. As nearly ninety percent of American children now attend public schools, this outcome could be disastrous to the public school educational system as we know it.

[The avowed goal of those who advocate vouchers is to divert funds away from public education and towards private schools. They cannot answer how such a theft of resources would benefit public education. In the meantime, the availability of vouchers would inflate private school tuition beyond the reach of poor children, just as federal grants and student loans inflated college tuition.]

On June 23, 1997, in the case of Agostini v. Felton, the U. S. Supreme Court held (5-4) that the Establishment Clause does not bar public school systems from sending public school teachers into parochial schools to provide remedial education to disadvantaged children, pursuant to congressional mandate. In so doing, the Court overruled its 1985 decision (also 5-4) that held to the contrary.

While this new decision, of course, is quite different from vouchers, this case is one of several in recent years in which a badly fractured Court took a less stringent view of separation of church and state than in the past. Each new case has been used as a precedent to rationalize further government aid to parochial schools. A Court majority is apparently bent on permitting more government aid to parochial schools. This does not augur well on the U. S. constitutional level for voucher opponents. The picture is much brighter on the state level, where state constitutional provisions have been held to prohibit vouchers as indirect government aid to parochial schools. What the future holds remains to be seen.

[I predict that the U. S. Supreme Court would place accountability on the same basis as subsidy: If a private school accepts public funds, it would have to accept public control too. In the end, the Court might reject the public control as violating the First Amendment; since control and subsidy do fit together, the Court would then reject subsidy.]

Samuel Rabinove is the former legal director of the American Jewish Committee.

Copyright © 1997 by Reform Judaism (published by The Union of American Hebrew Congregations) except for comments in Italics, which are copyright © 1997, 2002 by David Ross.

For other views on this issue, see Public Education at the People For the American Way.

21 December 1997
Link updated 6 November 2003

I heard an interesting comment on the radio about vouchers. Advocates claim that we should allow free-market forces to improve education the way such competition has improved other services and products. However, the free market involves not only success but failure. We cannot risk our future by exposing our children to market-driven failure. Also, in the free market, success is often measured by price and profit, not by quality. The cheaper goods dominate the market, driving out the better goods while maximizing the profits of those who cut corners; a system of education with this basic motivating force can only result in disaster for our nation.

8 February 1998

Copyright © 1998 by David Ross

Private elementary and high schools are generally unregulated by the government. In California, there are no standards for private school curricula or private school teachers. On the radio this morning, a news item described how a local private school operated by a church was headed by a convicted child molester who also taught some classes there. There are no state laws that can remove this sexual predator from the private classroom, let alone from the private school. Is this how we want our tax dollars spent?

28 April 1998

Copyright © 1998 by David Ross

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