School Vouchers: The Wrong Choice for Public Education

Constitutionally Suspect
Undermine Public Schools
Not Universally Popular

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School Vouchers:
The Wrong Choice for Public Education
Vouchers are Constitutionally Suspect

Proponents of vouchers are asking Americans to do something contrary to the very ideals upon which this country was founded. Thomas Jefferson, one of the architects of religious freedom in America, said, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves... is sinful and tyrannical." Yet voucher programs would do just that; they would force citizens -- Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists -- to pay for the religious indoctrination of school children at schools with narrow parochial agendas. In many areas, 80 percent of vouchers would be used in schools whose central mission is religious training. In most such schools, religion permeates the classroom, the lunchroom, even the football practice field. Channeling public money to these institutions flies in the face of the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state.

While the Supreme Court has upheld school vouchers in the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case, vouchers have not been given a green light by the Court beyond the narrow facts of this case. Indeed, Cleveland's voucher program was upheld in a close (5-4) ruling that required a voucher program to (among other things):

  • be a part of a much wider program of multiple educational options, such as magnet schools and after-school tutorial assistance,

  • offer parents a real choice between religious and non-religious education (perhaps even providing incentives for non-religious education),

  • not only address private schools, but to ensure that benefits go to schools regardless of whether they are public or private, religious or not.

This decision also does not disturb the bedrock constitutional idea that no government program may be designed to advance religious institutions over non-religious institutions.

Finally, and of critical importance, many state constitutions provide for a higher wall of separation between church and state -- and thus voucher programs will likely have a hard time surviving litigation in state courts.

Thus, other states will likely have a very hard time reproducing the very narrow set of circumstances found in the Cleveland program.

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