By Joseph L. Conn
A voucher subsidy for religious and other private schools just passed the Pennsylvania Senate, and voucher schemes are bubbling in Ohio and Tennessee. Other states are wrestling with the issue as well.
As usual, proponents of the scheme are depicting vouchers as a way to ensure “educational choice.” But what they don’t tell you is that the “choice” remains with the religious and other private schools. It is they and not parents who decide who gets admitted to their classrooms.
In a pointed piece in The Tennessean yesterday, columnist Gail Kerr tackled the “choice” claim head-on.
“That’s a bunch of hooey,” Kerr said. “The choice would be up to private school administrators, not the student or parents.”
Kerr noted that the $5,400 vouchers proposed by Tennessee legislators “won’t touch tuition at most private schools in Nashville.”
“And that means,” she continued, “it would be up to the private school to decide which students they would admit with financial aid. Who would they pick? Only the best, brightest and strongest athletes. And that’s no choice at all for most public school students.”
Kerr also raised the church-state separation concern that we at Americans United find compelling.
“Mixing public funding in private, religious schools, raises questions about the separation of church and state,” she asserted. “Could a voucher student sue a private school for allowing prayer, for example? If a private school has rules that are different from public schools’, whose get followed?”
I think the answer to Kerr’s question is pretty simple: the taxpayers will pick up the tuition tab, but religious school authorities will make the decisions about religious indoctrination.
Religious schools exist to raise children in a particular faith, and they aren’t going to give that up as their primary mission. Church-affiliated schools are free to teach fundamentalist dogma in science class – or any other class -- if they choose. And they are free to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds and impose religious criteria in their admissions process.
Consider the bill that just passed in Pennsylvania.
Sen. Daylin Leach (D- Upper Merion) told the Delaware County Daily Times that under the voucher scheme, private schools can accept or reject any child they want.
The Senate voted down Leach’s amendment to ban discrimination by private schools on the basis of sexual orientation.
“Schools can cherry-pick the best or perhaps the most athletic kids and reject the rest,” he told the newspaper. “They are also free to discriminate against kids based on things like sexual orientation and willingness to participate in specific religious services.”
Added Leach, “Every dime of each voucher comes from the [public] school a child leaves. That means that after a number of children migrate to better schools with their vouchers, all the children remaining at the old, under-funded school will have to struggle along with even less money than they had before.”
According to the Tribune-Review, Leach said the advance of vouchers is a “death spiral” for the public school system.
He’s exactly right. There is a perfect storm of forces besieging America’s public schools.
Religious Right activists support vouchers because they hate public education and want funding for fundamentalist academies and homeschoolers. The Catholic bishops want a bailout for their financially strapped parochial schools. Wealthy right-wing foundations and their political allies want to privatize all public services and break the power of the teachers’ unions, which serve as a bulwark for the public education system.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Americans who believe in public schools and church-state separation must speak up now! If we don’t, we are going to wind up with a nation where religious schools are fully funded with taxpayer dollars but not answerable to those taxpayers who foot the bill.
And the public schools will be left to operate as a pauper system trying to educate the most difficult children whom the private schools don’t want. That is, if there are any public schools left at all.
Our elected officials have a responsibility to strengthen and improve the public school system that welcomes all children, not divert taxpayer dollars to religious and other private schools that serve only the children they “choose.”
But many lawmakers are shirking that duty. As Tennessean columnist Kerr observes, “Too bad there aren’t vouchers to send them back to legislator school.”