School Choice & Charters

Catholics Laud Voucher Decision, See Potential for Growth

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 10, 2002 8 min read
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Steve Behr, a pastor ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, became a plaintiff in the case challenging the Cleveland voucher program because he believed it was “bad theology” for religious schools to take vouchers.

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In Mr. Behr’s view, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold those vouchers breaks down the wall between church and state, weakening the opportunity for religious people and schools to stay independent and be a conscience for society. “What freedom do I have in that [voucher-supported] school system to critique the government?” Mr. Behr asked.

But several administrators of Lutheran schools in Cleveland stand behind their decision to accept students as part of the voucher program, rejecting concerns about possible entanglement between church and state.

As such differences in opinion illustrate, people of faith are in anything but lockstep in their reaction to the Supreme Court’s June 27 decision allowing vouchers to be used in religious schools. And those differences could explain what some see as a guarded enthusiasm for the ruling from religious and private school groups.

The most ebullient response to the court’s decision came from educators at religious schools that already participate in voucher programs. They hope that voucher programs will go forth and multiply as a result of the ruling.

For Roman Catholics in particular, the Supreme Court decision was a great victory, said Bruce Cooper, an education professor at Fordham University in New York City. “They are carrying out a public mission, which is the education of inner-city children,” he said. “It’s not purely a religious mission.”

Catholic schools have participated in current voucher programs more than any other group of religious or private schools, mostly because they make up the only system of private schools that provides such an education at a reasonable cost, Mr. Cooper said. Catholic schools account for 30 percent of the nation’s private schools and enroll nearly half the 5.3 million U.S. students who are in nonpublic schools.

“They tend to do a good job and at a very low cost,” Mr. Cooper said.. Others noted the potential of vouchers to permit more children from families of modest means to afford an education at schools of their own religious faith.

Whether private schools with higher-priced tuitions, such as Jewish schools or nonreligious independent schools, get more involved in voucher programs will depend on “how big the voucher is and who’s eligible to get it,” Mr. Cooper said.

But even supporters of the high court’s decision spoke about its impact in measured terms, saying that it wasn’t clear whether the mission of private schools would mesh well with voucher programs if they were taken beyond the limited experiments now going on.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said he had wanted private school educators to respond more passionately to what he views as a “whole new ballgame constitutionally.”

“I wanted more people to say, ‘By God, this enables us to serve a lot more kids, and we’re going to find a way to do that,’” he said.

Other observers simply felt the decision was overdue, pointing out that the federal and state governments have a history of sending aid to religious institutions, through college scholarships or tax exemptions, for example.

Most likely, observers said, already-established religious and private schools will benefit most from any expansion in voucher programs. No one, meanwhile, seems to think the court’s decision and any new voucher programs it might lead to will spur a rush to create new schools.

Some religious and private school educators who support vouchers note that they keep the right to evaluate each voucher program to ensure that using vouchers doesn’t translate into sacrificing their missions. If it does, they say, they won’t participate.

Catholic Support

Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church seemed unanimous in approving of the Supreme Court decision, which can be seen as a vindication of efforts by Catholics throughout U.S. history to secure public aid for their schools.

As early as the mid-19th century, Archbishop John Hughes of New York made the argument that Catholics are taxed twice, once to pay for public education, and a second time with the money they spend on parochial schools, observed Jim C. Carper, an education historian at University of South Carolina in Columbia.

Catholics, Mr. Carper said, have tended to be more comfortable than some other religious groups “working in that ambiguous environment where government and church run into each other.”

While other Christians, as well as Muslims and Orthodox Jews, run religious schools as part of the voucher programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Florida, a majority are operated by Catholics. For example, 30 of the 49 schools participating in the Cleveland voucher program are Catholic.

“Parents have the right to choose where the money they pay in taxes goes into school support,” said Claire M. Helm, the vice president of operations for the Washington-based National Catholic Educational Association. “That kind of choice is really good for the country.”

Maureen Gallagher, the director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which has 34 schools participating in the voucher program there, said the Supreme Court decision lends “political strength” to the voucher movement. She hopes the voucher program in Milwaukee will take advantage of that strength and expand its program to more children inside Milwaukee and to needy children outside the city.

“What this really has done is enabled families who want to choose a Catholic education to have the funds to do so,” said Sister Carol Anne Smith, the secretary of education and superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.

But some Catholics oppose vouchers even though the church leadership promotes them, acknowledged Paul A. Long, the vice president for public policy for the Michigan Catholic Conference, the public- policy arm for the Catholic Church in Michigan.

Two years ago, Catholic dioceses and institutions in Michigan contributed $3 million to a campaign to get a pro-voucher state ballot initiative passed. The measure failed. Exit polls showed that nearly two-thirds of Catholics voted against the initiative as did Protestants, though Catholics who attended Mass at least once a week were more likely than those who didn’t to back the initiative according to Mr. Long.

Muslim school operators, too, are generally receptive to vouchers, said Sabah E. Karam of the Washington-based Council of Islamic Schools in North America. He pointed out that two Muslim schools, operated by African-American Muslims, participate in the Cleveland and Milwaukee voucher programs, out of the some 300 Muslim schools in the United States and Canada. Muslim educators like himself, Mr. Karam said, have encouraged their schools to become accredited by state agencies so they will be poised to take part in voucher programs.

Jewish Views

American Jews report more polarization on vouchers than Roman Catholics or Muslims do.

“Surprise, surprise—the Jewish community is not monolithic,” said Rabbi David Zwiebel, the vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, the advocacy arm for the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, which counts about 600 K-12 schools in the United States and Canada as its members.

Rabbi Zwiebel said Orthodox Jews, who have been much more inclined than other branches of Judaism to run their own schools, have long been supportive of school choice and vouchers, while secular Jews and Reform Jews, at the other end of the spectrum, have generally been opposed.

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision,” he said. “It will galvanize a fundamental debate in society as to how children can best be served through educational tax dollars.” While a majority of Jews have sent their children to public schools, more are viewing Jewish education as a way to combat a loss of Jewish identity and practice, he added.

At the same time, Rabbi Zwiebel said, “the strings-attached question” about voucher programs needs to be monitored carefully. “It may well be that as states establish voucher programs, they may attach strings that are not good for Jewish schools and then we wouldn’t participate,” he said.

Mark J. Pelavin, the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, confirmed that the official position of Reform Jewish congregations is that the Supreme Court made an incorrect ruling. “The government should not be funding religious institutions, religious worship, religious instruction,” he said.

The argument that vouchers might permit some children from low-income families to receive a religious education who otherwise wouldn’t get that chance is not a frivolous one, Mr. Pelavin said, but the financial threat that vouchers pose to public schools and to religious liberty outweigh their value.

When in comes down to it, however, said Bonnie S. Morris, the director of the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, she believes some of the nation’s 22 Reform Jewish day schools would participate in voucher programs if given the chance.

Receiving Public Aid

People of faith who support vouchers point out that religious schools already receive public money through various government programs. Some say they see no difference between vouchers and the implementation of federal Pell Grants or the GI Bill at the higher education level, where public money follows students to whatever college they choose.

And, with the backing of Supreme Court decisions, K-12 religious and private schools already receive public aid for their students through government programs that pay for remedial teachers, transportation, and computers and other equipment.

Mr. Behr, the Lutheran pastor, said the upholding of vouchers sets a new precedent, though, because for the first time it permits K-12 schools to use public money for specific religious purposes, not just educational purposes. “There was somewhat of a wall,” he said, “but now you can use the money for chapel services, building a sanctuary, anything you want.”

But Mr. Carper, the education historian, said the decision could merely re-create situations that were considered acceptable in an earlier time in the nation’s history.

“It has the potential for enhancing what I see as developing diversity in the American landscape which looks a lot like the early 1800s,” he said, “where the line between public and private was blurred, and the emphasis was on whether the institution served the public good.

“How it is governed and financed is secondary.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Catholics Laud Voucher Decision, See Potential for Growth


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