October 10, 2002
-- Dan Malotky
This past summer, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the school voucher program, based on the pilot in inner-city Cleveland, did not constitute the establishment of religion and thus affirmed its constitutionality. The Supreme Court's ruling should not shock us, but not all that is constitutional is wise. We must ask ourselves again -- and with renewed urgency -- if vouchers are a good idea.
The court's conservative bent is not the main reason that we should have been prepared for this decision. The court is right. The disestablishment clause of the First Amendment intends to keep the government out of the business of faith. It does so by barring the government from showing favor to a particular religion, from legitimating a particular faith through an association with political power. It is not, therefore, unconstitutional to supply public funds to religious institutions, unless the money is distributed in such a way as to provide a formal advantage to one religious worldview over others.
As long as parents have the freedom to choose between various religious and secular opportunities for their children in a voucher program, the separation of church and state is upheld. Those who want to deny any tax dollars to institutions simply because of their religious affiliation fail to recognize that they are advocating the establishment of their own, non-religious, worldview. They advocate precisely the kind of tyranny of ideas that the First Amendment was designed to eliminate.
We should be wary of voucher programs, however, even though they have received the Court's imprimatur. The basic arguments are well-known: vouchers will drain money from public schools that are already strapped for cash and they will provide money to schools that are not required to accept every student. They will relegate "problem" students and others with special needs (students that are expensive) to a public school system that will be less able to handle them. This will make public schools even less attractive, and the downward spiral begins.
Proponents admit that some schools will drop off the map, but they argue that the competition introduced by vouchers will improve the school system as a whole. Schools that survive will be stronger for the struggle. Furthermore, voucher programs will give the poor the opportunity to leave a dead-end school, giving their children a real chance of escaping poverty through a decent education.
Vouchers appear to provide the kind of equal opportunity in K-12 education that until now has been a distant ideal at best. They hold out the American Dream -- achieving success through talent and ambition alone, unhindered by political, social or economic constraints.
But if we want this sort of meritocracy, for our schools and our children, then we should shelve the voucher idea. Vouchers will punish those who do not deserve it. Competition between schools may sound good in theory, but we must recognize the human cost of allowing schools to utterly fail. If a school is dropping off the map, then so also, presumably, are its students. We might argue that the remaining students at a failing school should have jumped ship earlier; but this neglects the fact that students will not be able to change schools on their own. If their parents are strung out, overworked, or otherwise disengaged, many children at a bad school will simply go down.
Populists also point out that school vouchers will reward the wrong people. They will certainly aid some poor families with committed parents, but far more often, vouchers will benefit the progeny of the upper classes. Vouchers will become a tax cut for the wealthy, allowing their tax dollars to be diverted directly to the private education of their children.
The effect of voucher programs will be to widen the gap between rich and poor, even if some poor families do benefit. If there is any part of American life in which we can begin to fulfill the dream of equal opportunity, it is in K-12 education; but vouchers are not the solution. We need to fashion an approach to education that will hold out more than a thin lifeline to the poor. More importantly, we need to develop an education policy that is focused on helping the poor alone, a policy that cannot be exploited by those who already have more than their share of opportunity.
Dan Malotky is an assistant professor of religion at St. Olaf College. He received his Ph.D. in Religious Ethics from The University of Chicago Divinity School. His primary area of research interest concerns the relationship between religious convictions and public life.