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Potential Binds Complicate Voucher Debate

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If Milwaukee's publicly financed voucher program gets the go-ahead to include religious schools, Bob Smith would like his school to participate. But the president of Messmer High, an independent Roman Catholic school, is also wary.

Inside the measure that would open the state-sponsored program to religious schools--an expansion now pending a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling--is a provision requiring participating schools to honor parents' requests that their children be excused from religious activities. Therein lies the rub.

"Our Catholicity is not negotiable," Mr. Smith declared last week.

For now, the concern is largely academic. A state supreme court decision isn't expected any time soon, and the inclusion of church schools may fail to pass constitutional muster. Such an opt-out clause, meanwhile, is not included in the voucher program operating in Cleveland, currently the site of the only state-financed voucher program that includes religious schools. That program also is fighting a court battle to survive. ("Battle Waged Over Vouchers in Cleveland," Feb. 19, 1997.)

With public money in the form of vouchers could come greater government control.

But Mr. Smith's hesitancy reflects a larger concern among some private schools, both secular and religious: With public money in the form of vouchers could come greater government control.

Overall, vouchers still enjoy wide support among conservatives and private and parochial school leaders. Voucher proponents, for instance, argue that regulatory encumbrances can be avoided by carefully crafting legislation. In recent months, however, such supporters have found themselves debating libertarians and a small group of conservatives who argue that vouchers only add to what they say is the real cause of public education's troubles: the very fact that government is in charge.

No Poison Pill

Concerns about overregulation led the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington last year to decide it would abstain from participating in a publicly financed voucher program that Congress was considering for the District of Columbia. Under the measure, parents would have had to consent to allowing their children to take part in religious activities.

"We supported the bill, but could not participate," said Lawrence S. Callahan, the superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. "They were asking us to change our direction."

Schools within the archdiocese require all students to attend Mass regularly and to share in other religious activities for such annual observances as Lent.

A U.S. Senate filibuster killed last year's voucher plan, but a new $7 million proposal was included in a District of Columbia appropriations bill recently passed by the House. The House plan for the 79,000-student district includes no opt-out clause. The Senate appropriations bill offers no voucher plan. Lawmakers from the two chambers are expected to take up the issue in a conference committee when Congress reconvenes this week, although President Clinton has vowed to veto any voucher plan.

The District of Columbia legislation would accept religious schools. Should it be enacted, however, critics would likely launch a legal challenge--a move that would severely limit the scope of a voucher program, which, under the House bill, would serve 2,000 students. While the Archdiocese of Washington says its elementary schools could handle some 1,200 more students, the region hosts few nonsectarian schools whose tuitions are less than the $3,200 maximum voucher to be offered. And the cheapest tuition at the six Catholic high schools in the city is $4,200, although the archdiocese says that many parents receive financial assistance from their schools.

Average tuition for parishioners in the archdiocese's elementary schools is $2,100; nonparishioners are charged $100 to $200 more.

Many voucher supporters say that apprehension over added regulation should not be used to torpedo the very idea of vouchers. Even Milwaukee's opt-out clause, some say, should not preclude religious schools from participating.

Clint Bolick

"Religious activities" could be interpreted to exclude required religious classes, said Clint Bolick, the vice president and director of litigation of the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based legal-advocacy group. Parents also are unlikely to choose a religious school if they don't want their children exposed to that faith, he said.

The opt-out clause has not dissuaded the Archdiocese of Milwaukee from seeking to take part in the city's voucher program, said John Norris, the superintendent of schools for the archdiocese."It's really very unclear because so much is going to depend on the definition of 'activities,'" he said. A student could be required to attend Mass, he suggested, without being required to pray.

'Education Food Stamps'

But those arguments do little to quiet some libertarians' and conservatives' fears of inevitable government intrusion.

"You are expanding the number of people that are dependent on government and diminishing the responsibility of parents," said Marshall Fritz, the director of the Separation of School and State Alliance. Calling vouchers "education food stamps," the Fresno, Calif.-based libertarian group opposes not only publicly subsidized vouchers, but also argues that no schools should receive tax revenue or be run by the state. Some 3,300 individuals have signed the organization's "proclamation" advocating the severing of all ties between schools and government.

Conceding that most conservatives have not been won over to their views, such libertarians nonetheless have entered the debate over vouchers, writing cautionary articles for conservative publications and claiming to have instilled skepticism among some former voucher supporters.

Many such libertarians argue that private schools need only look toward higher education to see how the acceptance of government funds has coincided with the erosion of religious identity from church-affiliated colleges and universities. A 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which Congress later expanded, found in a case involving student grants that colleges receiving federal funds are obligated to follow federal anti-discrimination guidelines.

"There's much less of a tendency to support every voucher proposal that comes down the pike," said Douglas Dewey, who recently argued the libertarian case against vouchers in a publication of the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank that espouses a free enterprise viewpoint.

Mr. Dewey believes private philanthropy should help low-income parents send their children to private schools. He directs the Washington Scholarship Fund, a so-called private voucher program that offers such scholarships, although he stressed that his opinions on public vouchers are not necessarily those of the program he runs.

With the help of a $6 million gift, the organization announced last week that it will offer 1,000 more scholarships next year, on top of the 460 students the program now serves.

But proponents of taxpayer-financed vouchers argue that such private efforts cannot meet all the demand, especially from what they say are a growing number of parents seeking to remove their children from urban public schools.

Poll results released this past summer from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that studies African-American issues, showed black support for vouchers had risen from 46.7 percent in 1996 to 57.3 percent this year.

This growing support was also reflected in August by a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll showing nearly half of all Americans--and 62 percent of blacks--now favor using government funds to pay for private school tuition.("Poll Finds Growing Support for School Choice," Sept. 3, 1997.)

"It is an annoyance to find that we're arguing these issues not only with the [National Education Association], but with some libertarians," Mr. Bolick lamented.

Already Regulated

Despite the debate brewing among public-policy groups, schools that do receive publicly subsidized vouchers in Cleveland and Milwaukee report few threats to their independence.

"The principals had a lot of concern about how much dictating are they going to do," said Lydia Harris, the principal of Cleveland's K-8 St. Adalbert's School. "But the things they require are really minimal and would be required of any good school."

The school already accepts state aid for transportation costs, books, and instructional equipment, she pointed out, and Ohio has long dictated such rules as the minimum number of days and hours that private schools need to operate.

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