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One of the most heated controversies in education today is that of school vouchers. Promoted by Christian conservatives, this program would give each child a "voucher," or a certain amount of public funds (say, $2,600 a year), that would follow the child to whatever school the parents selected. It would either pay or defray the costs of schooling, which could be either public or private.
The reforming idea behind vouchers is that parents would enjoy freedom of choice in the market of schools. Educators would compete for as many vouchers as possible by offering the best education possible. Schools that lost too many "customers" would go bankrupt and be replaced by better ones. Supporters claim that this retains the best of both worlds. All students, regardless of their class or race, would still receive a publicly funded education, but they would also benefit as consumers in a competitive market that ostensibly produces the highest quality at the lowest cost.
In their attempt to sell the voucher program, proponents often falsely accuse the current public school system of being a failure. According to the far right, our public schools are in need of radical reform. (Namely, vouchers.) But this is a complete myth. The U.S. high-school dropout rate has been falling for decades now, and is lower than most prosperous nations. Achievement test scores of all types have been rising among all demographic groups of the American student body (although, paradoxically, the average SAT score has slightly fallen, since a growing share of lower-scoring minorities are taking it). The fact that our public schools are seeing continual improvement takes much of the wind from the sails of the radical reformers. The current system isn't perfect, but we have seen what programs lead to improvement, and funding more of these programs should lead to even more improvement.
The political agenda behind vouchers
Voucher proponents have a larger agenda: the public financing of religious education, and the eventual elimination of public education entirely. The religious right has been quite open about its motives. Jerry Falwell says: "I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them." Pat Robertson says: "They say vouchers would spell the end of public schools in America. To which we say, 'So what?'"
The religious right opposes public education because of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Public schools are government-funded, so they are prevented from doing anything that would establish a religion. The Establishment Clause has been successfully used to remove prayer and the teaching of Creation from public schools, which has caused the religious right no small amount of chafing. Their proposed voucher system is actually a back door for public funding of religious education, since they propose the vouchers be used for any private schools -- including religious ones. But this would breach the wall separating Church and State. The courts have come to this conclusion as well, as they have regularly struck down vouchers for religious schooling in the past. Nevertheless, vouchers remain a top priority on the religious right's agenda.
Vouchers would also serve as an intermediate step towards the complete dismantling of public education. To see why, it is first necessary to understand a key difference between public and private schools. Most private schools tend to cost more, and as a result of their larger budgets, they offer better educations. Not surprisingly, students who attend private schools generally come from wealthier families. And wealthier families tend to have children with higher IQ's, so they make better students in the first place. (Whether high IQ's are a cause or result of wealth is a matter of controversy, as The Bell Curve debate has shown.) Consequently, test scores from private schools are usually higher than public schools. Conservatives use this fact to argue that private schools are inherently better than public schools, but this ignores the greater funding that private schools enjoy, and the better students they attract. Liberals argue that if public schools were given more adequate funding, and if poverty could be reduced, they could significantly reduce the gap.
But vouchers would only increase the disparity between public and private schooling. Public school students would migrate to private schools, especially those student with grades high enough to get into those better schools. This would drain both critically needed funds and good students from public schools. As public schools deteriorated still further, conservatives would have even more ammunition to attack them. Eventually public schools would become so uneconomical that society could "save" money by privatizing them completely.
Furthermore, vouchers would split up an important interest group (parents) by eliminating their common meeting point (the schools) and forcing them to compete with each other for the best educations for their children. Also, schools could be gradually privatized by increasing the percentage parents must pay by keeping vouchers constant, or even cutting them.
THE FLAWS OF THE VOUCHER SYSTEM:
1. Vouchers do not work.
Perhaps the strongest argument against vouchers is that they simply do not work. Since the early 1990s, Milwaukee has been the site of the nation's largest and most watched voucher program. Low-income students are given $3,600 a year to attend any participating, non-religious school of their choice. However, the students who have taken advantage of the program (leaving public schools for private ones) have experienced no academic improvement. Both their math scores and English scores have remained the same. (1) (We should note that this failure highlights the role that poverty also plays in suppressing test scores.)
In addition, problems of participation have emerged. Student involvement in the program fell far short of its hopes. Out of 1,450 slots created for low-income students in 1994, only 830 were taken. Of all students who switched to private schools, 40 percent did not return the next year. (2)
In California, where a voucher system has been proposed, a survey of 1,004 private schools found that there wasn't enough space in private schools to accommodate public school students wishing to transfer. The researchers wrote: "Less than 1% of public school students can expect to find additional spaces in private schools under existing conditions." (3)
And this problem is compounded by the fact that the better the private school, the less desire the school has to accept voucher students from public schools. Of all low- to medium-tuition private schools, 80 percent said they would be willing to accept such students. However, only 56 percent of the high-tuition schools said they would be willing. What's worse, the high-tuition schools also reported having the least open spaces for new students. (4) If the best schools do not participate, then the theoretical benefits of a voucher program are slight to begin with.
2. Vouchers would stratify education and society
Another important criticism of vouchers is that they would stratify schools by income, class, race and religion. Before examining the ways in which vouchers would divide our school population, let's review the reasons why classroom diversity is important.
Public schools currently serve as America's melting pot, where children from all walks of life grow up together. They learn that diversity is normal, which makes them much more accepting of and open-minded to people who are different from them. When people live in communities where everyone is the same, then people who are different are an unknown entity, and people usually feel fear and hostility towards the unknown. One of the great benefits of desegregation in the 50s and 60s was that a generation of children grew up with much less racist attitudes than their parents.
Another benefit of diversity is that it opens up intellectual horizons. When people of the same mindset get together to study, they merely reinforce their own prejudices and beliefs. The value of dissenting (or just plain different) voices is that they bring new viewpoints to the discussion, challenge people to look at things in new ways, and point out errors that a single-minded group might have missed. This effect has long been known at the university level, where different-minded professors are intentionally brought together in the process of peer review, which results in lively and helpful debate. In the long run, this diversity of opinion usually brings scholars closer to the truth.
Yet another benefit of diversity is that it allows differently-abled students to help each other. Educators have long known the benefits of letting children teach each other, because they speak each other's language and understand each other's thought processes. The best students set the standard, and allow other students to see what is possible. Struggling students receive help from the best students, who also benefit, because one of the best ways to learn is to teach. Unfortunately, in classrooms where the best students are removed (say, to better schools), then all these benefits disappear, and the poor students usually engage in a race to the bottom. This process is called "ghettoization," named after the phenomenon of minorities trapped in ghettoes, who do not have the resources to help each other and consequently see their conditions deteriorate.
Public schools today are the result of 30 years of desegregation, busing and other policies intended to promote diversity within the classroom. There has been considerable resistance to these programs by middle and upper class whites, and it is not difficult to see how they would resurrect segregation if they had their choice. But, under desegregation, black students have seen their test scores rise (even faster than white students have risen). And every new generation is less racist than its parents'. The reduction of black poverty is probably most responsible for these trends, but certainly diversity shares some of the credit.
That said, how would vouchers kill diversity? By the so-called "freedom of choice" offered by vouchers. "Freedom of choice" is really a misnomer, a euphemism. What vouchers actually offer is "freedom to exclude," and only to those with the money or power to exercise this option.
The first way vouchers exclude is economically. A voucher's "freedom of choice" is usually only for the rich. The poor are not free to choose a private school that costs more than the voucher. They are forced to accept whatever schools they can afford, which will be underfunded and of poor quality. The rich, whose children tend to be better students, will choose exclusive and more expensive schools that keep out the poor and disadvantaged. And this division also bears a racial cast, since whites tend to be significantly richer than minorities.
The second way vouchers exclude is racially. Whites tend to seek schools with the fewest number of minorities. However, as many schools grow whiter, the minorities in them will become more uncomfortable with the racism and hostility they experience every day, and will seek refuge in minority schools. Hence, racial segregation will reappear.
The third way is by religion. Church schools almost always accept students only from their own denomination. In the Seventh-day Adventist schools this author attended, for instance, only Seventh day Adventist children were admitted.
Voucher proponents claim that parents will seek academic quality first and foremost, but studies show that parents focus on social, not academic, criteria in selecting their schools. Political scientists Kevin Smith and Ken Meier researched school data from Florida and found that private school enrollment was motivated mostly by religion and the apparent desire to escape minorities. Other reasons for choosing a school included good athletic programs, proximity to the home, attendance by friends in the same social groups or income class, or the school's "elite" reputation (regardless of whether that reputation is deserved). (5) Furthermore, "freedom of choice" in the market of schools presupposes that parents are fully informed about their choices. But poor parents, and parents from discriminated minorities, usually have the least amount of information, connections and opportunities to realize their full freedom of choice. As a result, those parents who need choice the most often have the least of it.
Yet it would be mistaken to believe that the voucher program's "freedom of choice" belongs primarily to the parents. Actually, it belongs to the schools. The evidence is overwhelming that private schools select students for their high academic achievement or membership in a select social group. Low-achieving students from public schools don't stand much of a chance of being accepted into private schools seeking academically superior students. Indeed, in the Milwaukee voucher experiment, the best private schools simply declined to participate in the program. Also, most parents would like to enroll their children in private schools to escape the crime, drug abuse and discipline problems of public schools, but private schools generally refuse students from such backgrounds. Again, it is not difficult to see how vouchers would stratify society by every division imaginable.
These observations are supported by broad empirical evidence collected from other nations. The American Prospect reports:
Since 1959, the French government has paid salaries of all teachers, public and private. Though France attempts to limit inequality by requiring comparable public and private class sizes, rich students are disproportionately enrolled in subsidized private schools, leaving immigrant students concentrated in the public system.
"Israel recently established alternative schools with differing philosophies and curricula. They are academically superior to neighborhood schools; parents who choose them are wealthier and more educated. Choice schools are islands of excellence for the rich while Israel struggles to assimilate immigrants from North Africa and Russia.
"Holland's choice system is 85 years old. The government pays for buildings and teacher salaries for any school that parents establish; two-thirds of all schools are privately run. School choice in Holland has enabled "white flight" from Turkish and Moroccan neighborhood schools. Recent Dutch studies show that Muslim students in segregated classrooms do worse than those who are in integrated classrooms, while most Dutch parents choose schools based on the socioeconomic status of students already enrolled, not on the school's academic performance.
"Scotland got school choice in 1982; parents can send children to private or public schools outside their local district. According to a recent study by professors Doug Willms and Frank Echols, 27 percent of children whose parents were professionals chose to escape neighborhood schools, but less than .5 percent of children whose parents were semi-skilled blue-collar workers did so. Twenty-four percent of college-educated parents' children, but less than 1 percent of children whose parents had no college, escaped." (6)
3. Vouchers for religious schools are unconstitutional.
Another problem with vouchers, as mentioned above, is that they violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Obviously, public funding of religious schooling breaches the wall separating Church and State. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down such direct funding on a regular basis (PEARL v. Nyquist, 1973; Grand Rapids v. Ball, 1985; Felton v. Aguilar, 1985; and Mueller v. Allen, 1987). Furthermore, 32 state constitutions explicitly prevent it as well. In the Milwaukee voucher experiment, the courts only allowed private, non-sectarian schools to participate. Thus, any voucher program that included religious schools would be certain to raise expensive legal battles.
First Amendment defenders also have another strong argument against vouchers. And that is that the U.S. Supreme Court has frequently interpreted the Establishment Clause to mean that government should not do anything to increase "political division along religious lines," which would be "a threat to the normal political process." (7) The divisiveness of vouchers is clear, in that they would eliminate diversity and promote religious isolationism.
Christian conservatives protest that they are "doubly taxed" on education, since they not only pay taxes for public school, but also tuition for private school. Hence vouchers are a way of establishing fairness for parents who send their children to private schools. This argument, however, is fallacious for several reasons.
First, the government does not force parents to send their children to private schools, and their tuition cannot honestly be called a "tax." It is a voluntary expenditure. Second, the "double taxation" argument hides the fact that all citizens have to pay taxes for public schools, whether they use them or not. For example, single people without children have to pay the tax as well -- as they should, since they benefit from an educated society. Taxes are a universal obligation, like private car owners who must still pay taxes to support public transportation. Third, the government is under no obligation to relieve someone of taxes so they can afford something else. Tom may want to buy a new car, but it would be wrong of him to insist that the government should relieve his tax payments for public schools so he can afford one. Fourth, the "double taxation" argument is irrelevant, because as long as the First Amendment exists in its present form, the government simply cannot pay or otherwise compensate for religious education. We should also remember that the First Amendment exists at the will of the people, and Christian conservatives would first have to change the majority of people's minds before they could be relieved of their so-called "double taxation." (8)
4. Vouchers allow schools to escape accountability to the public.
Vouchers are designed to eliminate school accountability to the public by placing it in private hands. This is not a good idea, especially since the public pays for the vouchers. In the Milwaukee experiment, the voucher program created many new problems of administrative accountability. Several schools cheated the city out of thousands of dollars by over-reporting the number of voucher students they enrolled. (9)
Another failure of accountability occurred in Baltimore in the early 90s, when the city government hired a private company called Educational Alternatives, Inc., to run nine of the city's schools. EAI was supposed to come in and succeed where government had failed, by introducing the efficiency of private enterprise. Unfortunately, there was no public oversight to make sure that EAI kept the students' best interests at heart, rather than its own. Expensive services like those for disabled children were slashed, even though EAI was given a budget of $18 million more than the city was planning to spend on those schools. The profits, of course, went to EAI. A University of Maryland study independently confirmed that AEI was spending more per student than other city schools, yet test scores for students dropped at all nine schools, at a time when test scores at other public school were rising. Class attendance also lagged behind other schools. Three and a half years into the company's five-year contract, the school board unanimously voted to dump EAI.
Another failure of accountability occurred in Hartford, where EAI won a contract allowing it to manage all 32 of its schools under a $200 million budget. Under the contract's terms, the company could keep half of everything it "saved" -- a euphemism for "cut." In its efforts to maximize profits, the company proposed firing 300 teachers. This would have degraded those schools' quality by making classroom crowding even worse. At the same time, EAI tried to get the city to increase its top-executive compensation to $1.2 million. Outraged, Hartford subsequently took back 26 of its 32 schools. As James Carville put it, "Companies like EAI have one bottom line, and, believe me, it isn't the well-being of our kids." (10)
5. Vouchers upset the balance between parental and public control over education.
Much of the controversy over vouchers is centered on the following question: Who should control a child's education -- parents, or society?
On an instinctive level, parental control makes excellent sense. After all, the parents gave birth to the child, and they probably care more for it than anyone else. Naturally, they want to raise the child the best way they can. Other authorities will not be as motivated.
But having enormous parental concern for a child is a far different thing from knowing what's best for that child. When children become sick or injured, most parents do not attempt to cure them themselves; they visit a doctor. When children need computers for schoolwork, parents don't build them themselves; they buy them from expert manufacturers and programmers.
The same goes for education. A parent cannot possibly know more about every field of science than scientists specializing in those fields, nor can parents know what qualifies as sound science better than the professional educators and scientific philosophers who select the curriculum. (Unless, of course, they happen to be epistemologists themselves.) Parents have opinions and prejudices, to be sure, but to select a school based on these criteria is to put the cart before the horse. We should learn the data first, and then arrive at our opinions; not the other way around. The selection of sound scientific data is best left to professional, mainstream scientists and educators. If parents want to supplement or critique a child's public education, then that can be done at home or church. We'll revisit this controversy shortly.
Even the very premise that all parents have their children's best interest at heart is false. Although a great many parents do care for their children, a great many also don't. In 1995, over 3 million children under the age of 18 were reported to the police as victims of child abuse and neglect. A Gallup poll of parents from the same year found that 16 times as many cases went unreported. If true, that would be approximately half of all children in America. (11)
There is also a second kind of parent who fails to act in the child's best interest. That is the well-meaning parent who doesn't know any better, or is somehow prevented from pursuing the best course of action. An example of the former is the Christian Scientist who refuses simple medical treatment for a child, relying instead on prayer that lets the child die unnecessarily. Or parents who are ignorant and uneducated themselves. Or parents who are dysfunctional because of alcohol, drugs, gambling or other pathologies, who cannot escape the hell of their condition, and are unfit for parenting.
The value of public education is that it sets a reasonably good standard of child education, care and development. If parents want to improve on that at home, they are free to. However, if children suffer from parental ignorance, abuse and neglect at home, then public schools offer children a haven from their parents, a place of remediation and help. Such a resource would not be available to children if their parents could send them to a private school that continued their mistreatment -- say, the David Koresh Academy. Vouchers would only make such cultish private schools more common, by making them more affordable to parents.
These are some of the issues over parental control of education; what about public control?
We should first note that schools do not serve just individuals. They also serve society. Public schools create social cohesion, a common language and culture, a shared body of knowledge, and a well-trained and interchangeable workforce. Any educational system that disrupted this social cohesion and smooth-flowing interdependence would fail society. The public would have a right to demand changes to such a flawed system, especially since it is paying for it.
Even without vouchers, private schools already tend to disrupt social cohesion. The first reason, mentioned above, is that private schools divide society into cliques, each with its own peculiar belief system of how the world works. One needs only to consider the nearly 3,000 different religions (and non-religions) in America to see how radically different, bizarre and even undesirable many of their curriculums are. For example, whereas secular schools teach modern geology, biology and paleontology, many fundamentalists schools teach that these sciences have been corrupted by the Devil. The result of such different schooling is often two people who meet in the real world and cannot understand, communicate or even tolerate each other. Vouchers would make this even worse.
The second reason is that private schools are not responsible to society, since they are not funded by them. Therefore their curriculum can be anti-social. Militia members, for example, teach their children how to handle firearms, in the belief that children need to be protected from a society that is supposedly bent on enslaving them. These children are also taught to freely sabotage and steal from society, as in the case of the Montana Freemen. Just imagine what a Militia High School would teach its children, and how many more parents could afford such brainwashing, once vouchers became available.
Our current public school system is a compromise between parental control and public control. The textbooks in our public schools, written by scientists and selected by educational experts, generally represent the latest mainstream science. Because this education is generally shared by everyone in the public school system, it provides the nation's students with a shared body of knowledge. However, this does not mean that parents do not have control over what else their children learn. Parents are free to teach children anything they want at home or church, no matter how brilliant or ignorant, no matter how mainstream or eccentric.
The beauty of this compromise is that it retains the best of both worlds. Children learn a common "language" at school, and learn a second "language" -- that of their own particular church or group -- at home. Otherwise, children attend private schools that merely reinforce the peculiar beliefs they are already taught at home. The key point here is that children are exposed to two viewpoints, not deprived of one. They receive more information, not less. This is also important because even if the parents do not agree with the mainstream science taught in public schools, it is important for the child to know it, if only to intelligently refute it. In other words, it guards against the kind of brainwashing that occurs when a child is exposed to only one point of view.
A variation of the theme: charter schools
School choice has been proposed in other variations as well. The most important is charter schools. These are publicly funded schools that are run by independent, private organizations. The schools they run would continue to be apolitical, secular, non-profit and state-certified, just like any public school. What's new is that they would be free to reform their services according to market demands. As with vouchers, parents may choose to send their child to any school they desire, and public funds will automatically follow the child to that school. Under this system, good schools and teachers would thrive, but poor ones would go out of business, and be taken over by the next organization.
Charter schools are an attempt to eliminate many of the flaws for which the voucher system has been justifiably criticized. Gone are worries over religious and political indoctrination; charter schools would teach the same curriculum taught in public schools today, only hopefully using better methods in better environments. Charter schools would ostensibly eliminate disasters like the ones Baltimore and Hartford experienced at the hands of Educational Alternatives, Inc. If AEI had failed in a charter school system, then it would have been replaced by a competitor. One could also imagine that AEI would not have been given a monopoly on all 32 Hartford schools, but would have competed with other educational firms.
Consequently, charter schools do enjoy some liberal support. Still, many problems and potential dangers remain. Charter schools would still result in a loss of classroom diversity, as students gravitated towards their own clique schools. And there is still the problem of unregulated private companies making their charter schools unaccountable to the public.
Yet another danger is that profit, not education, remains the company's bottom line. Quite often these two goals coincide, but many times they do not. One can easily imagine a profit-driven school that cuts the quality of its education but produces "consumer satisfaction" by giving most students higher grades than they deserve. (Perhaps a separate fast-track curriculum could be offered to the 25 percent of students who will go on to college and thus need to be legitimately prepared.)
There is also evidence that special education, which is expensive, is a frequent casualty of charter schools. In one Arizona study, for example, it was found that the majority of charter schools do not serve the needs of disabled students who require special education. (12)
In the U.S., about 400 charter schools were in some stage of operation in the 1996-97 school year. The empirical evidence on their success is mixed. The National Education Association writes:
1. Separation of Church and State Home Page, citing John Witte, "The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program," in School Choice: Examining the Evidence, ed. Edith Rasell and Richard Rothstein.
2. Separation of Church and State Home Page, citing Doerr, Menendez, and Swomley, in The Case Against School Vouchers, pp. 47ff.
3. Marcella R. Dianda and Ronald G. Corwin, "What a Voucher Could Buy: A Survey of Private Schools," survey conducted by Southwest Regional Laboratory, cited in Metro Educator, April, 1993.
5. Separation of Church and State Home Page, citing Kevin Smith and Ken Meier, The Case Against School Choice, pp. 64-79.
6. Richard Rothstein, "The Myth of Public School Failure" The American Prospect no. 13, Spring, 1993.
7. Chief Justice Warren Burger, Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971.
8. Paraphrased from Tom Peters, "Are private school parents doubly taxed?" Separation of Church and State Home Page.
9. Separation of Church and State Home Page, citing Church and State, April 1996, p. 15ff.
10. James Carville, We're Right, They're Wrong (New York: Random House, 1996), pp. 101-103.
11. National Child Abuse Coalition, "Fact Sheet: Child Abuse."
12. NEA Center for the Advancement of Public Education, "In Brief: CHARTER SCHOOLS," November 1996.