Should Public Money Go to Nonpublic Schools?
It is ironic that voucher schemes to allow parents to send their children to nonpublic schools are misleadingly labeled as "school choice" or "parental choice" measures. The truth is that vouchers will further reduce educational choices and opportunities for precisely those families who already face the most limited options: the poor, minorities, and students with disabilities. No label can hide the fact that under a voucher plan, it is schools that will do the "choosing," not parents or students.
The irreducible element in voucher plans is that private and parochial school vouchers force taxpayers to contribute to the support of religious institutions and the choice of a religious education for someone else's children. Forcing some citizens to support, through their tax dollars, other citizens' religious preferences is not permitted in a nation committed to religious liberty.
U. S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter made this point when he commented on the First Amendment's ban on any "law respecting an establishment of religion." He stated, "If the Clause was meant to accomplish nothing else, it was meant to bar the use of public funds for the direct subsidization of preaching."
Noting that the historical evidence for this conclusion "antedates even the Bill of Rights itself," Souter went on to cite Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. The bill's preamble declares that "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical."
This position is not hostile to religion. To the contrary, religious freedom flourishes in this country precisely because of the principle of separation of church and state, not in spite of it.
Under other school choice plans, such as tuition tax credits, the government pays money directly to parents, some of whom in turn pass it on to sectarian schools. On this basis, voucher advocates claim that the link between government funds and parochial schools is sufficiently indirect to pass Establishment Clause review.
But voucher and tuition tax credit plans are no more than end-runs around the legal principle that one cannot do through the back door what could not be done through the front door. Laundering public funds by passing them through parents' pockets does not cleanse voucher programs of their constitutional impurity: tax dollars eventually will be paid directly to parochial schools.
In a 1975 case, the U. S. Supreme Court determined that aid "formally given to parents and not directly to religious schools" does not immunize it from Establishment Clause scrutiny. Likewise, in a 1986 case, the court reaffirmed that "aid may have the impermissible effect" of advancing religion, "even though it takes the form of aid to students or parents."
True, the U. S. Supreme Court has yet to squarely face the constitutional arguments that vouchers expressly facilitate parochial education at public expense. This will likely take place in a review of the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision which upheld the use of school vouchers in that state.
Voucher advocates also claim that vouchers will improve the public schools. But there is reason to be suspect of that laudable secular goal: If vouchers do not improve public education, that will only give credence to the charge that aid to parochial schools and promoting religion is, in fact, the real purpose of these schemes.
Studies of school voucher programs, conducted in voucher cities such as Cleveland and Milwaukee, have found that the programs drain much-needed resources from the public schools, where 90 percent of neighborhood children remain. The studies also point out that students accepted to private schools may not even have the means of transportation to attend those schools. Finally, the lower-tuition parochial schools may be the only schools parents can afford with their modest vouchers. The only "choice" for them may be between religious schools and an all-but-abandoned public school.
Vouchers also constitute taxation without representation. Taxpayer money would be spent according to the policies of private school boards, which are neither democratically elected nor publicly accountable. Consider this passage from James Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessment," written in 1785: "It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. The same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three-pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him in all cases whatsoever."
School voucher schemes constitute just the type of "religious tax" that this nation's Founders so strongly condemned and resoundingly rejected more than 200 years ago. And they did so for good reason.
Wendy Wagenheim is legislative affairs director for the Michigan affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union in Lansing.