Will vouchers encourage the creation of radical schools?


Recently I read about a 1995 federal court case that addresses one part of the question of what happens when public funds are translated into support for private schools through vouchers. An African-American student attending a private high school in Milwaukee University School gave a speech on black separatism in her English class. The student criticized the school as racist and the school responded by suspending her and asking her not to return the following year. She sued the school claiming she was being punished for statements constitutionally protected as free speech. She lost the case.

In the decision, federal Judge Terrence Evans wrote, "It is an elementary principle of constitutional law that the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights do not apply to private actors such as the University School. Generally, restrictions on constitutional rights that would be protected at a public high school . . . need not be honored at a private high school."

That's an impressive finding from a federal court in the context of trying to determine the impact of vouchers. Directly, then, the message is that even in a circumstance where private schools are funded by publicly financed vouchers- as many are under Milwaukee's voucher system- the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights do not apply to the private school students. This is all the more impressive when you recognize it is possible for the total budget of a private school to be funded with publicly financed vouchers.

There is nothing to prohibit the development of private Klu Klux Klan schools. There is nothing to prohibit the development of private sectarian religious schools. There is nothing to prohibit the development of private home schools with narrowly exclusive agendas. And American history gives us examples of such private schools. Would providing public funds encourage such developments? It certainly seems likely.

So, when we acknowledge that private schools are not subject to constitutional protections, and private schools will admit and retain only those students they wish to admit and retain, and private schools don't have to meet any state achievement standards, and private schools are not required to provide any particular number of hours of teaching, and private schools do not have to report their work to the public, and private schools are governed by non-elected and publicly non-accountable boards, and private schools do not have to meet in public or make their records available to the public, we certainly have the makings of a system in which voucher dollars can be used to support "radical or fraudulent" schools. Is that a problem? Don't we want diversity?

It is a problem. Diversity which includes unconstitutional behavior- whether created for that purpose or not- is a problem in a democratic society. Unaccountability is a problem in a democratic society. If an institution is neither accountable to the Constitution nor to the public responsible for its funding, that institution easily can pursue an unrepresentative agenda, even one with values contrary to the general public and our Constitution.

It would be foolish to argue that most private schools are likely to pursue "radical" agendas. It would be foolish to argue that private schools generally are likely to deprive their students of constitutional rights. It would be equally foolish to ignore the fact that such possibilities would be enhanced through enactment of a voucher program such as the one offered to voters under November's Proposal 1.

Our commitment to public education is based on the democratic notion that kids have the greatest opportunity for development if they grow with and learn with children from different backgrounds. Deborah Meier makes a compelling statement about our common educational agenda in The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem:

The task of creating environments where all kids can experience the power of their ideas . . . means accepting public responsibility for the shared future of the next generation. It's a task for all of us, not just the school people or policymakers or even parents alone. The stakes are enormous, and the answers within reach. . . . We're not accustomed to recognizing the power of each other's ideas; it's easier to take flight. If we abandon a system of common schools through apathy and privatizationwe deprive everyone, not just the least advantaged, of the kind of clash of ideas that will make us all more powerful. More importantly, reinventing our public schools could provide an exciting opportunity to use our often forgotten power to create imaginary worlds, share theories, and act out possibilities. Schools embody the dreams we have for our children. All of them. These dreams must remain public property.

Meier is an outspoken advocate for choice within public education. Her insight into the power of common schools underscores the stake all of us have in the debate over the effort to underwrite private education with public dollars. A strong public education system is the basis of our democracy.

Former state representative Lynn Jondahl is executive director of the Michigan Prospect for Renewed Citizenship.