At a time when so many public school systems are troubled, school voucher programs may seem like a magic bullet. Touted as a way to provide a broader range of educational choice, these programs consist of government financial assistance (usually $2,500-$5,000 annually) to parents who send their children to private and parochial schools.
In the case of inner-city children, especially, it is claimed that vouchers level the playing field and offer an equal chance of attending private schools. It is further argued that vouchers, by way of the competition they foster, force public schools to "clean up their act."
It is not so. Voucher programs drain money from the public schools, further weakening them. Voucher programs often provide too little aid to help most parents afford private schools. And even if they did provide the benefits claimed for them, vouchers violate the Constitution, threaten the barrier between church and state and trample on the concept of freedom of religion.
The Constitution and the courts have left plenty of room for government programs that result in indirect benefits to religious organizations. Vouchers, however, are a whole other level of involvement -- direct state support of religious schools.
Religiously based education has its strengths. And those who choose religious schools for their children may be tempted by the lure of state subsidies. But where state money goes, state scrutiny is sure to follow. The independence of religious schools can only be compromised by reliance on government dollars.
However well-intended they may be, the bottom line remains: vouchers appropriate tax dollars to subsidize religious institutions. The Supreme Court has not yet heard a case on vouchers, but past rulings have struck down any government aid that effectively furthers the religious function of parochial schools.
Vouchers also have subtle discriminatory effects. Because the amount of each individual grant is so small, and because parochial schools are generally a good deal cheaper than other private schools, a disproportionate share
of vouchers are directed towards religious schools. In some areas, up to 80 percent of voucher money would be used for schools whose central mission is religious indoctrination. It follows, then, that in some communities, children from Jewish and other minority religious backgrounds will have fewer options than others. They may find themselves with no choice but to attend either a deteriorating public school or a private school whose religious orientation differs from their own.
The ill effects of voucher systems reach to the very roots of the democratic spirit. Because vouchers divert resources from the public school system, they starve the seedbed of tolerance. Private education may have its virtues, but inclusiveness is not generally one of them. Private schools, whether religious or secular, often discriminate on any number of grounds. Public schools, on the other hand, are open to children of every racial, religious and economic background. To turn away from public education in its time of trouble is to reject an ideal of democracy and risk fragmenting society.
Even if we set aside such crucial concerns,
the fact of the matter is that the effectiveness of voucher programs
has been mixed, at best. One instance at least, the Milwaukee
voucher program, has resulted in a huge budget shortfall, leaving
the public schools scrambling for funds. On these grounds alone,
voucher programs have the potential to do irreparable damage to our
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