The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Private School Vouchers: Bad for America

Written by Nancy Kanode


Educational vouchers or school choice, as many of its promoters like to call it, is an effort to create educational choices for parents of elementary-through-high school children. Whether at the city, state, or federal level, legislation is being introduced with the hope of making the private- school choice idea into reality. This discussion will focus on the more controversial matter of private school vouchers when exploring the school choice issue, rather than discussing choice among public schools or that of charter schools. The backbone of the school choice movement involves vouchers given to parents by the government allowing them to use the voucher (an amount normally used to fund a student at public school) at private schools, including sectarian schools. On the surface it sounds too good to be true, enabling parents, rich or poor, black or white, to select the highest quality education for their children, and best of all, to have it paid for by taxes. However, upon further examination, this particular movement may, unwittingly, ruin our public educational system, create bigger chasms in race, religion, and caste, and most importantly, violate our Constitution. The argument for school choice comes primarily from two different camps. The first is the group of Americans concerned that public schools are "insufficiently rigorous in their methods, do not stress math and science" and "emphasize individuality at the expense of discipline" (Goldberg 26). Public education In this country has come under a barrage of criticism, much of it from many Americans who feel our schools don't provide kids with a good education. Some will say there is much to criticize: falling SAT scores over the last 25 years, many unsafe inner-city schools, and poor test scores when compared to students in other countries (Smith, Meier 15). Additionally, many from this group want private school choice because of the problems of some unsafe, inner-city schools. Besides low academic performance there, the lack of a safe environment has made many parents want to send their children to safer schools outside their districts. For many of these people the cause for educational vouchers would be eliminated if they had the freedom to send their children to any public school, (public school choice) even if it was outside their district. The very general term, "school choice", including private school vouchers, addresses these problems, they feel, and should be more prominent on the agenda for educational reform.

By contrast, there is a mistrust of the agenda from those representing the second camp. This group is largely composed of conservatives, especially Christian conservatives. Many opponents of school choice believe the attacks against public education by many from this group are propaganda to lay the foundation for their ultimate goal: getting back to less culturally- diverse schools (segregation and injecting religious instruction, Judeo-Christian style, into the curriculum at the expense of taxpayers.

Many public school defenders claim critics have unfairly used statistics to paint a negative situation in public schools and have quite possibly created a crisis where There really isn't one. As a result of the negative propaganda, many Americans' perception of public schools has changed and they now see school vouchers as the only way to solve our educational problems. Some of the so-called evidence against the public school system, in the form of statistics, may not fully represent the facts.

For example, the fact that SAT scores have fallen over the last 20 years has been used to demonstrate that our public educational system is in a crisis. However, upon a closer look at SAT test takers one can't help but notice that there is an increasing number of minorities taking the SAT than there used to be (Smith, Meier 16). The percentage of minorities taking the SAT in 1975 was 14%, and 86 % for whites (17). But by 1990 the percentage of minorities taking the SAT had risen to 27% and had dropped for whites to 73% (17). Minorities don't always score well because of background and language difficulties (18). But, nevertheless, in the last 15 years all minority subgroups have improved their scores (18). Furthermore, the SAT scores of white students, rather than falling as we've all been led to believe, have really remained stable (16). Quite possibly, it could be a case of changing demographics rather than a declining educational system. And in fact, when Sandia National Laboratories weighted the 1990 SAT scores to show the demographic makeup of those who took the SAT in 1975, they showed that scores actually went up by 30 points in only !5 years (16 ). By slanting statistics, some proponents of school choice have created an artificial need that requires their remedy.

There are problems in public schools, as well as in private schools, that reflect the complex problems of our changing society. Some of the problems in these schools revolve around racial conflicts. However, shipping kids out of these schools may only polarize the different, races by creating segregation. Public school officials admit things have changed in public schools, especially in some inner-city schools, but they blame parents and not the system. They believe it is a solvable problem . Parental involvement is what is really needed, according to public school officials, but they feel no one can force parents--certainly not vouchers. Teachers claim they see more children than ever from abusive and neglectful homes (Houston). Rather than punish public schools for these problems, (by diverting funds to private schools) school officials feel more should be done to change conditions for children at home, along with more education to improve racial relations.

Many advocates of school choice point to the large number of private schools, especially in southern slates, as evidence that people are unhappy with public education and have, therefore, chosen private education. However, private schools may have cropped up for another reason. The number of private Christian schools, as well as enrollment, increased dramatically in the 1960's in areas of segregation when the desegregation policy began (Smith, Meier 69). Many attribute this to racial reasons, rather than legitimate complaints against the educational system. As Dr. Menedez put it in his study of a large number of textbooks from conservative private schools, "They idealize an American past that itself was intolerant or unjust or, in some cases, simply imaginary." He goes on to say, "the views and attitudes expressed are sharply at variance with the major tenets of American democracy: respect for diversity, intellectual freedom, maximum choice in lifestyle, religious tolerance, racial and cultural pluralism, appreciation for modernity, experimentation, and pragmatism." (Menendez 4)

To the average American the word "choice" connotes freedom and when coupled with the word "school" evokes images of a wide array of educational opportunities. The idea of choice in the education reform movement may sound good, but it is not realistic. It is only a realistic perspective for some Americans who want to inculcate a particular type of religious instruction to their children. For parents who feel vouchers will ensure parental choice in education the facts are disappointing.

Most Americans, when thinking of the private school sector, envision many different types of private schools. They believe the private school sector is made up of Montessori-type schools, college- prep schools, along with religious schools. But the truth is, a whopping 85% of private schools are religious in nature (A.U.S.C.S.). So the choice for most parents, should vouchers become reality, wilt ultimately be among religious schools. For these schools, religion permeates their entire curriculum. The fact that proponents of this movement have renamed it "school choice" is an effort to make it more enticing to Americans.

Only private school administrators will have the real choice, because unlike public education, they decide who gets into their schools and who doesn't. They may reject, as they do now, any student who they feet won't fit in or whatever reason. None of the proposed new legislation changes this policy. It will be far more discriminatory than any public school could ever be. One of the reasons test scores from private schools are sometimes higher than their public school counterparts is because of their right to exclude students. This, undoubtedly gives private schools an edge when it comes down to test score competition. Because they are legally entitled to exercise discrimination in who they accept, private schools don't have the burden of having to average in low scores from slow students or students with disabilities. Therefore, when evaluating the quality of a private school using test scores, it may not necessarily be the better teaching staff or facility a private school offers, but rather it may be better students the private school has selected.

Private religious schools routinely select students with like-minded views, which means schools will not be diverse, but will reflect whatever the majority of its student body believes. This narrowness will only be amplified ii we go to the educational voucher system. Furthermore, 'these schools are just as discriminating in who they hire to teach. Parents who assume their children will get a broad education could be in for a shock when they discover that many schools will probably be limited and myopic in the education they offer, only offering their own particular world-view based on the particular brand of religion sponsoring that school. Vouchers will not change any of this, but insure that discrimination happen on a larger scale a public expense. As if this Isolationist-type thinking is not bad enough, other areas besides religious, political, and racial domains of the American melting pot will also be differentiated.

Voucher legislation permits private schools to continue to discriminate, not only on the basis of religion, gender, and disability, but could also encourage a caste system in our country. Many Americans don't fully appreciate the low emphasis on caste in our country as compared with many other nations. It is difficult in most countries, and impossible in others, for a person from a poor or uneducated class to get a formal education and rise to a different position in class structure. In the United States, while there is some class distinction, anyone who truly desires to rise to another class, has a good chance at doing so. This is in large part due to our philosophy regarding public education for everyone all the way up through college.

One facet of the strong caste system in other countries is seen in their educational institutions. These institutions which cater mostly to a specific class perpetuate the class distinction by ensuring that each of their students meet a certain profile criteria. In many of those schools wealth and class level solely determine whether a student can attend. Even in this country, there are some private schools that tend to accept students from a certain class. And in those situations, parents have that freedom as long as they pay for it, monetarily as well as socially. But it is wrong for taxpayers to have to finance someone else's right to exclusivism.

However, with the voucher system possibility class distinction will be supported in that parents will be subsidized with tax dollars to send their children to exclusive schools with other students of similar status. One must use the term,;'subsidy', because there is no way the average American could afford the high tuition of many private schools. Many proponents of school choice are under the mistaken impression their children can attend any private school, notwithstanding cost. This is not how the voucher proposal reads. What will likely happen is that these same Americans will not be able to afford the difference between the voucher amount and the school tuition cost when considering exclusive private schools and will end up putting their children in some of the mediocre private schools which charge less tuition. Whereas, those middle-to-uppers who now have their children in public schools will be able to afford exclusive schools because of the voucher subsidy. It follows then that school vouchers could make the problem of class distinction in our society even worse by separating even more, " the Have"s" from the "Have Not's". Yet, there is the even bigger issue of constitutionality.

Many uninformed Americans see nothing constitutionally wrong with assisting parochial and other private schools by way of vouchers. Our Constitution insures that religious institutions can teach their beliefs. However, it also insures that government tax dollars will not fund religious institutions, including their schools. This is because our forefathers wanted to keep the business of religion apart from the business of government, including using ax dollars to aid schools in proselytizing. When they drafted the First Amendment to our Constitution they created a document that prohibits financial support of religious institutions. Interestingly, later many states followed suit in their state constitutions. In the past, most private schools seemed content with this arrangement because it also insured little interference or intrusion from the government in the operations of their schools.

In other words, the Constitution provides protection for private schools to teach their own curriculum, (provided it meets minimum educational requirements), but it very clearly, in its First Amendment, sets up a wall between church and state where no tax dollars are to support religious organizations or those teaching or proselytizing their beliefs in the elementary and secondary years of education. The educational voucher plan draws upon public funds to support religious education, a direct violation of our Constitution and most state constitutions.

Over the years there have been many attempts to turn religious schools into pseudo-public schools, in order to get state funding, but they have always been struck down, sometimes by other religious organizations themselves, hoping to maintain America's religious liberty. This has changed over the years, for now many religious organizations can't wait to get their hands on voucher money. Note the sentiment for keeping private schools free of tax or state support in 1947, after a Cincinnati school board turned a Catholic school into a pseudo-public school (Johnson, Yest 110), the Council of Churches for Greater Cincinnati issued the following statement:

The principle of the separation of church and state was established on the basis that any support, however slight, for any church or religious establishment would lead first to bitter wrangling between the adherents of different religions for tax favors and ultimately to the worst of all tyrannies, religious persecution. As President Madison pointed out in his famous "Memorial Against Religious Assessments", the first step towards church support, direct or indirect, from tax funds is the first step towards a return of the Spanish inquisition... The principle of separation of church and state is not a worn out slogan to be evaded by legal fiction. It is the keynote of our religious freedom. As such, it is worth protecting. For that reason we shall support wholeheartedly the move to stop tax support for any church school, North College Hill or any other place (Johnson, Yest 111).

Many proponents of school choice don't see the concern over the diversion of money away from public education because they believe public schools will be forced to improve or close up (Kirkpatrick 47-61). Some people erroneously believe vouchers will make public schools better by promoting competition in education. But there is no evidence to support this notion. Numerous studies have concluded that the positive things our public school system has accomplished could only have been done by having one large, centralized system (Houston). Competition may be great for soft drinks, but it could be terrible for schools. Many Americans feel it is our public educational system that makes our country so great. The difference between our democracy and those of many other nations is our education-of -the-masses philosophy, instituted by such men as Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and John Dewey. As a result the United States can boast that 26% of our population graduates from college--the highest percentage in the world, including Japan (Houston).

While critics of our educational system point to higher test scores by other nations, they forget that unlike other nations, we offer high school and college education to everyone--even mediocre students. By contrast, other countries screen and weed out mediocre students to vocational tracks early on, so that they are left with the most academically-inclined students at the high school level. ii follows, therefore, their students' scores, when compared to our " teach-everyone policy" scores, are higher . But notwithstanding this mitigating circumstance, American students still shine. For example, at the 1994 International Mathematical Olympiad in Hong Kong, the U ..S. high school team, with only a month of preparation (compared to a year-long preparation by other teams), accomplished a feat never done before. Each member of our team got a perfect score on the two- day exam. And each member was public school educated. (Smith, Weier 138) This confirms what a Money magazine report concluded after an exhaustive study of public schools and private schools. "Students who attend the best public schools out perform most private schools. The average public school teacher has stronger academic qualifications than most private schools. Public school class sizes are no larger than most private schools and are smaller than in most Catholic schools. Shocked? So were we." (Topolnicki 98) The article went on to say that, based on their study, the average private school was no better than the average public school. Those mediocre and poor public schools will improve only if our government leaders and the public decide to make a serious commitment to educational quality for every school and commit to making all inner- city schools safe. Diverting money away from public schools will not accomplish this objective.

One argument that comes up frequently in favor of the voucher school choice plan is the myth that vouchers will correct the injustice of "double taxation" for parents who now send their children to private school and who must still support a public school system they don't use. What these parents don't realize is that private school tuition is not a tax. It is an added expense they have chosen to pay. In fact, there is no such thing as a double tax. We are all expected to support certain basic services whether we use them or not. For example, we pay for police services, our fire departments, our libraries and of course, our public schools. And yet many of us rarely use these services. Single people and couples without children must still pay school taxes even though they don't have children to utilize public schools. Worst of us believe it is in our best interest, as a nation and individually, to make sure our people are educated. But the truth is under a voucher plan there will be double taxation. This is because Americans will still have to pay to maintain quality in public schools and then pay increased taxes to make up for the money being given to parochial and other private schools (Lieberman 7-14) (Americans United for Separation of Church and State).

Additionally, Americans already voluntarily support , through churches, charities, and other religious organizations, a wide variety of religious institutions and schools. It is wrong to make them pay taxes for the purpose of supporting schools teaching religious views they disagree with.

Clearly, educational vouchers for private schools are wrong for America. Not only does this idea violate our Constitution by funding religious schools, but it allows discrimination on the basis of religion, disability, and gender, not to mention other characteristics. Covertly, it promotes discrimination in race and in caste. It dictates that those who do not "fit" will likely be labeled misfits or losers and will all be left to cluster in what remains of our public education system should we adopt this program. Voucher legislation doesn't require private schools to admit any student with a voucher. Therefore, there is no real choice for students, only for private schools.

Many of the issues facing the public education reform movement are complex and vary from area to area. And while we have a responsibility to improve our public educational system, we must Se careful , like the early promoters of public education, to get agreement that can lead to common action and not a separatist way of thinking. We need to have a greater loyalty to not only our Constitution, but to a commitment to diversity in our institutions and to dissolving conflicts there.

Our greatest commitment should be to provide children with world views different from that of their parents. Private schools , for the most part, don't accomplish this. Many of them are only an extension of not only the same viewpoints as home but provide little opportunity for kids to experience diversity. instead, they insure that adults who grow up this way are comfortable only within their own political, racial and socioeconomic strata. And it follows that children educated in this restrictive world will be less tolerant of different attitudes and viewpoints as adults. What we need is unity in the midst of our diversity, rather than isolation. We can't allow television to be the only thing :hat unifies us. Our public schools should be what they have been for the last century: the best institution for shaping and conveying a common culture.

Works Cited

Goldberg, Bruce. "A Liberal argument For School Choice". American Enterprise Sept/Oct 1996

Houston, Paul. "What's Right with Schools?" American School Board Journal. April 1992: 24-27

Johnson, Alvin and Frank Yest. Separation of Church and State. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota. 1948

Kirkpatrick, David. Choice in Schooling. Chicago, Illinois: Loyola University Press, 1990

Lieberman, Myron. Public Education,_An Autopsy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993

Menendez, Albert J. Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books. 1993

"Private School Vouchers: Myth vs. Fact". (A.U.S.C.S.) Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Washington, D.C. Oct. 1996

Smith, Kevin B., and Kenneth J. Meier. The Case Against School Choice. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1995

Topolnicki, Denise M. "Why Private Schools Are Rarely Worth the Money." Money [magazine] Oct.1994: 98+