Supporters of school vouchers are jumping for joy over a Wisconsin Supreme Court verdict, handed down this summer, that permits tax dollars to be used at religious schools. They hope the decision will be the basis of a vast expansion of vouchers (four other states are debating this same question), eventually leading to a federal voucher program to “privatize” all education.
But there are flies in this ointment, enough to cause conservatives to rethink all the sympathies they have for vouchers. For the court did not rule that religious schools can receive government money with no strings attached. It ruled narrowly on the Milwaukee program itself, which only passed muster because of its rigid restrictions. Those who actually read the decision will find that in order to receive vouchers, religious schools will have to surrender all control over admissions and gut any doctrinal teaching.
What are the problems with vouchers? First, there is the eligibility criteria for students. The money is not available for the children of middle-class parents who actually pay the taxes that support the public schools. It is available only for those the government defines as “poor,” the very group that already enjoys vast subsidies in the form of free medical care, housing, daycare, food, and cash. Vouchers represent not a shrinkage of this welfare state but an expansion, the equivalent of food stamps for private school.
What’s more, vouchers are available only for children currently in public school, which creates perverse incentives and strikes at the heart of fairness. Parents scraping by to pay their child’s tuition at a parochial school get nothing, but the next door neighbor, who lets her kid founder in the streets and the public schools, gets a full scholarship. Parents will have every incentive to rip children out of private schools and put them back into the public ones temporarily, just to be eligible for the program.
And what about middle-class kids in the private school? We know how much animosity small freebies like meals for some but not others create in public school. What about free tuition at private schools for some but not others? No matter how you slice it, vouchers represent more welfare, another free lunch for the underclass. And there is no point in hiding the racial element here, since voucher advocates have not been shy about touting it. Vouchers are for poor blacks. Whites have to pay their own way into private schools, plus pay for public schools, plus pay for vouchers for eligible blacks to attend private schools. This is not a prescription for racial harmony.
Second, vouchers will have a disastrous effect on the schools, which will not be allowed to choose which voucher students they can accept. Catholic schools cannot pick Catholics over Mohammedans. Single-sex education is out. Nor may schools consider a history of abject academic failure or even violence. In fact, the court underscored that schools are prohibited from exercising any judgment whatsoever about the students they take in (except that they may give preference to siblings). As Justice Donald J. Steinmetz, writing for the majority, said in these startling sentences, beneficiaries are to be “selected on a random basis from all those pupils who apply and meet these religious-neutral criteria.” And again, “the participating private schools must select on a random basis the students attending their schools.”
That’s right: random admissions, somewhat like public schools. The inability to pick and choose among students, and kick out students who do not cut it in academics or discipline, is one of the reasons public schools are in trouble. Apply the same rule to private schools, and you go a long way toward making them carbon copies of the schools so many are anxious to flee.
Look at the demographics of the students receiving vouchers in the Milwaukee program. As reported by Daniel McGroarty in the Public Interest, 60 percent were on welfare, 77 percent had no father at home, and all were “very near the bottom in terms of academic achievement” with “a history of behavior-related problems.” Do we want these kids crashing the private schools of the country, and doing so at taxpayer expense? No wonder Polly Williams, a black nationalist and far-leftist, is celebrating.
Nationally syndicated columnist Pat Buchanan, who inexplicably joined Williams in cheering the Milwaukee decision, still wondered how paying parents will react “when Little Alvin the Drug Dealer, with his gold chains and Clock semi-automatic, and his fellow gang members, show up at the new school, $5,000 vouchers in hand.” Vouchers, he further speculated, may
serve as visas to new turf for hoodlum kids who made those inner-city schools the war zones some have become. What happens when a boy at Bible Baptist is sliced or stabbed by a “voucher student” at gym or some little girl is molested?
Third, regarding the religious content of the curriculum, the Wisconsin state legislature added an “opt-out” provision that prohibits a private school from requiring a student “to participate in any religious activity if the pupil’s parent or guardian submits to the teacher or the private school’s principal a written request that the pupil be exempt from such activities.” The existence of this provision helped persuade the court that there was no violation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s diktats about church and state. But this betrays an astounding ignorance of the way many religious schools teach. There is no such thing as a “religious activity” separate from the general learning program of the school (as there might have been in public schools before the Supreme Court prohibited even that). The very purpose of these schools is to weave religious values into the process of learning.
When these schools teach reading, among the books they select is the Bible, and nearly all readings will have some religious lesson behind them. When these schools teach history, the history of religion is integral. When they teach art, they use religious imagery. When they teach science, they include biblical accounts of God’s hand moving in the creation of the world. In these schools, literature means, in part, learning about religious writing.
The court’s mandate requires that the religious side of the curriculum be distinct and separate from the secular curriculum, and that the secular side be large enough to prepare students to pass standardized tests. In practice, this will require any supposed religious school to model itself on non-sectarian schools or public schools, and to do so in opposition to the parents who are shelling out tuition money precisely so their children will have their faith reinforced.
Prayer will be allowed, so long as ample time is provided for “opting-out” students, even if there is only one, to leave the classroom. And can the teacher make casual reference to religious doctrine in the course of the day without first permitting opting-out students to cover their ears? And what about something as simple as a crucifix or a copy of the Ten Commandments on the wall of a classroom? Is looking at them a “religious activity”? In that case, they must be taken down, just as they were in Catholic universities taking government money in the 1940’s.
Keep in mind that these are only the first round of restrictions. Inevitably, there will be new challenges to the particular practices of these religious schools, and if the courts continue in the direction they have been heading for 50 years, religion will be systematically banished. In order to avoid lawsuits, schools will err on the side of caution by voluntarily cutting the heart out of their programs.
This is why David Frum, writing in the Weekly Standard, is so startled that any conservative would support vouchers to begin with: “Voucher advocates intended to bring the virtues of the private school into the public sphere; there is a much more real risk that they will instead inflict all the vices of the public sphere upon the private.” Because control follows tax money, vouchers guarantee that the whole system of private education will eventually be absorbed into a gigantic government-funded blob, with the only pockets of diversity being schools that refuse any subsidies at all, though they will then be frequently outcompeted. This is precisely what happened on the university’ level, with a disastrous homogenization and dumbing-down.
There is another kind of “choice” program that does not involve the private schools. It permits public-school students from one district to attend the public schools of another district. This would presumably force schools to compete for students. But this plan is actually more monstrously left-wing than anything the left would have dared dream. It would make it impossible for good schools in successful areas —whose residents pay the lion’s share of the taxes that run their schools—to keep out the failed or violent students from across town who are constantly clamoring for a free ride.
Of course, if a town wants to abolish its school districts, it should be free to do so. But there is a reason they do not. District borders work like fences between houses. They help keep the quality of schools as high as possible, and land values stable. That the advocates of school choice cannot understand this demonstrates how completely out of touch they are with the present state of education across most of the country.
Besides, the question of public-school choice is appropriately dealt with only at the local level. As the choice advocates begin to promote a federal effort to abolish—by force—school districts around the country, they can expect to be denounced, hated, and opposed by every middle-class parent, and rightly so: public-school choice is merely another name for busing, but on an unimaginably huge scale.
Vouchers have much in common with socialism. They both rely on government plans, government-issued coupons, vast expense, and invasions of private space. We can even think of the Soviet economy as having been fully voucherized. Officials stole your money, told you what to buy, and issued tickets that allowed “choice” among available goods. School vouchers do the same, and will work about as well.
The idea of vouchers originated on the neoconservative right with Milton Friedman, but increasingly the left has figured out that vouchers represent their dream come true: special privileges for the poor, an expansion of the welfare state, the elimination of exclusive admissions, and the destruction of anachronisms like schools that still teach religious truth. The result is an unholy alliance of big-government libertarians and equality activists of all stripes to rob us of what remains of our educational freedom, and to do so in the name of serving up ever more of our tax dollars to the underclass.
Meanwhile, the advocates of vouchers are busy trampling on decades of conservative attacks on the “right to a quality education,” a slogan of the left now recklessly tossed around by the Institute for Justice and the rest of the Beltway cabal. Conservatives must be aware that the language of voucher supporters is drawn from an alien tradition that has no regard for limiting power or protecting property, and no appreciation for the natural inequalities of social position that are an inherent part of a free society. True equalization of educational opportunity would require yet another round of judicial activism to override neighborhood, town, and state jurisdiction, as well as the distinctions between producers and non-producers, which is apparently what the leaders of the voucher movement advocate.
These days, we are almost never spared the tyrannies of the judiciary imposed on us by leftist egalitarians who think nothing of robbing us and abolishing our right to self government. Must we also suffer this fate at the hands of left-libertarians and neoconservatives stupefied by egalitarian fantasies of state-subsidized racial uplift? Not if the people have anything to say about it. Proposition 174 in California, a model piece of voucher legislation backed by all the usual suspects, crashed and burned at the polls for the very reasons I have laid out here. But now the activists are cheering on the courts to destroy private schools and what is left of decent public schools, at our expense.
Just as bad, vouchers reinforce the twin evils of public education: involuntary funding and compulsory attendance. As Mark Brandly of Ball State University has pointed out, compulsory attendance laws not only violate parental rights, they allow government to define what a school is, and therefore to outlaw such developments as small, informal neighborhood schools, where one uncredentialed mother would teach arithmetic and another reading, and then switch places or take time off, helping with money instead. Such arrangements would surely take the place of homeschooling in a free market, since most mothers are not cut out for full-time teaching. Yet today, such alternative schools are illegal. Vouchers do nothing to end that situation, and, in fact, they lead in the opposite direction: toward more draconian regulation.
The free market always provides the most choice and parental satisfaction. But the real free market is not a phony “competition” using tax dollars—which denies choice to the taxpayers—but an educational market in which parents are responsible for paying for their own children’s education. The free ride at taxpayer expense has not worked in any other area of social and economic policy. We should not expect anything but harm when the same theory is applied to education.
Until we get a real free market in education, conservatives need to revisit an older agenda. Get the federal government out of education. Decentralize all funding and decision-making to the states, and then to the local level. Scale down school districts to the neighborhood level, as they were in the 19th century. As for private schools, including home schools and cooperative groups of homeschoolers, oppose any restrictions whatsoever. This is a huge but urgent agenda. The push for vouchers is not only a distraction; it is destructionism masquerading as freedom.
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