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Constitutionality of Vouchers Uncertain, Says Bennett; Defends Religion Stance

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Washington--Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, while chastising the U.S. Supreme Court for striking down certain public-aid programs in religious schools, last week acknowledged that his proposed education-voucher plan might not pass constitutional muster.

"This whole area is tricky," he said in an interview. "It's made trickier by a whole line of Supreme Court decisions. And one of the problems is that we can't discern a clearly coherent pattern to the decisions that gives us a clear principle and guidance."

But he cited the Court's approval in 1983 of a Minnesota tuition tax-deduction program to support his contention that vouchers could be an acceptable way of providing federal remedial-education aid to religious-school students.

Mr. Bennett declined to disclose the specifics of his voucher plan, which is contained in draft legislation that the Office of Management and Budget is now reviewing.

On the nbc news program "Meet the Press," Mr. Bennett earlier last week said that if Chapter 1 became a voucher system, local education agencies would distribute the vouchers to parents and participating private schools would have to comply with some federal guide3lines, such as civil-rights laws.

In the interview, Mr. Bennett defended his recent statement that the United States is a "Judeo-Christian" nation and denied that he was being divisive or misusing his status as a Cabinet official. (See text of speech on page 11.)

"We have a whole history of debate about this topic," the Secretary said. "It's a debate the American people can carry out and it's one we can't ignore."

Mr. Bennett, the product of a Jesuit high school, has sharply criticized recent Court decisions on church-state issues in public education. He argued in the interview that the "wall of separation" between church and state is actually "a pile of stones here and a pile of stones there."

Mr. Bennett also said he thinks the Secretary of Education has a role to play in a national debate on religion.

"I can't deny history, I can't deny that there's an intimate connection between the Judeo-Christian beliefs and this society," he said. ''These ideas come from somewhere. They don't just pop out of the air. Talk about history without talking about religion. Talk about the rise of the West without talking about religion. Talk about the history of art without talking about religion. Talk about the history of literature without talking about religion. You can't get away from it. If you think you can give a history of our civilization, our culture, our values, and ignore religion, you're going to be writing Russian history."

On other topics, Mr. Bennett:

Explained that although the teacher shortage is a nationwide problem, it is "largely, almost exclusively, a local situation," best confronted by state and local governments. He said federally sponsored solutions, such as forgivable loans to college students who become teachers, are perhaps too "costly" to be feasible.

"I'm confident that the communities, if they want to solve this problem, will solve this problem, and most of them are," he said. "It may mean a shift in their resources, and it may mean greater efforts at recruiting. It may mean raising entry-level salaries, and it may mean alternative certification and the like, but we don't hire anybody or pay anybody's salary."

Declined to discuss his reported plans to rewrite current bilingual-education regulations and to propose new legislation in an effort to bring more "flexibility" and "choice" to the federal bilingual program.

Defended his assistant secretary for civil rights, Harry M. Singleton, saying he is "satisfied" with the job the department's office for civil rights is doing.

Testimony at a House hearing last month disclosed that the civil-rights office has been settling cases using a method whose effectiveness was questioned by the Justice Department in 1981.

Said the department's fiscal 1987 budget proposal, which is currently being discussed with the omb, would include policy shifts and renewed attempts to cut spending.

Acknowledged that the Reagan Administration has higher domestic priorities than education on its agenda--among them deficit reduction and tax reform--but said he is in regular "contact" with the White House on education matters.

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