Commentary Magazine


Are School Vouchers Un-American?

By any measure, public education in America’s cities is in deep trouble, and has been for some time. On any given day in Cleveland, almost one of every six students is likely not to show up. In Washington, D.C., a majority of tenth graders never finish high school. And in Los Angeles, school officials recently retreated from a plan to end the practice of “social promotion,” realizing that it would have required holding back for a year more than half of the district’s woefully unprepared students. Nor do things look any better in the aggregate. As Education Week concluded in a special report two years ago, “Most fourth graders who live in U.S. cities can’t read and understand a simple children’s book, and most eighth graders can’t use arithmetic to solve a practical problem.”

The response to this dismal situation has taken many shapes in recent years, but none more radical—or more promising—than the idea of school vouchers. Though little more than a thought-experiment as recently as the late 1980’s, vouchers are now being used in one form or another in every major American city, providing low-income families with scholarships or subsidies that allow them to send their children to private schools. Of these programs, the great majority are privately financed, currently sponsoring more than 50,000 students nationwide. Considerably more controversial, despite affecting just some 12,000 students, are the three state-funded programs now in operation. In Milwaukee, in Cleveland, and (as of this past fall) in the state of Florida, qualifying families are using public dollars for private education, usually at religious schools.

For the teachers’ unions, liberal interest groups, and Democratic politicians who are the most determined foes of vouchers, these programs are objectionable not so much for their scope—after all, the number of students involved is but a tiny fraction of the country’s school population—as for the precedent they set and the unmistakable message they send. Whether public or private, today’s voucher initiatives are an explicit rebuke to the failing inner-city public-school systems whose students are the chief beneficiaries of the new programs. As activists on all sides of the issue recognize, if these pilot programs succeed, it is far more likely that school choice for the poor will be transformed from a modest, mostly philanthropic experiment into a full-scale public policy.

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And it does, in fact, appear that today’s voucher programs are succeeding, at least from the perspective of the families taking part in them. Though isolating the deciding factor in improved test scores is a notoriously difficult business, studies by Harvard’s Paul E. Peterson and other social scientists have found that students with vouchers perform at least as well—and often much better—than their peers in public schools.1 Looking at the question from a different angle, John F. Witte of the University of Wisconsin reports that voucher recipients in Milwaukee have resisted the “normal pattern” of declining achievement among inner-city students, maintaining their test scores relative to national averages even as they enter higher grades. Every study has also found that parents who take advantage of vouchers are vastly more satisfied with the quality of their children’s education, a sentiment based on everything from more rigorous homework assignments to better classroom discipline.

Unsurprisingly, given these results, interest in school choice has risen greatly over the last few years among inner-city families. One survey found that 85 percent of the urban poor now favor vouchers; another put support for the idea at 59 percent among blacks and 68 percent among Latinos. As if to prove these figures, when the Children’s Scholarship Fund, the largest of the private voucher programs, recently announced its first national lottery for 40,000 scholarships, applications poured in from an astonishing 1.25 million children, all from low-income households. Such desperation, in the view of former Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore—one of a handful of black Democrats who have dissented from their party’s line on education—makes the movement for school choice “part of an emerging new civil-rights battle.”

This groundswell of grassroots support has created an increasingly uncomfortable situation for those committed to thwarting school choice. When a federal district judge suspended Cleveland’s publicly financed voucher program this past August—setting in motion a series of appeals that is still ongoing—local opinion turned sharply against him, with the Cleveland Plain Dealer branding him a “voucher vulture” for his “utter disregard for the needs of children across the city.” Within days, the judge felt compelled to reverse his order, allowing the program to carry on, as it has continued to do even in the wake of his ruling in December that it is unconstitutional. So, too, the leading groups in the antivoucher movement have been made to see the political awkwardness in taking a stand that so plainly defies the wishes of low-income families eager to improve the lot of their children.

Many of those making the case against school choice are now willing to concede—grudgingly—that the children who participate in these programs may benefit in some way. But, in their view, this is no compensation for the wider harm that vouchers threaten to do. A lucky few may be helped by the government’s willingness to underwrite private education, but society as a whole, they insist, will inevitably suffer from a policy so contrary to our most fundamental civic principles and institutions. Indeed, if the most vociferous critics are to be believed, the idea of school vouchers is not just wrongheaded, it is positively un-American.

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The most frequently invoked argument on this score is that allowing public dollars to help support sectarian schools is unconstitutional on its face and strikes at the very heart of our tradition of religious freedom. As the American Civil Liberties Union puts it, “vouchers violate the bedrock principle of separation of church and state,” forcing “all taxpayers to support religious beliefs and practices with which they may strongly disagree.”

In a more strictly legal vein, voucher opponents point to a series of Supreme Court decisions during the 1970’s rejecting various forms of government assistance to religious schools. The first and most important of these decisions, in the landmark case of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), set out the criteria the Court has used ever since to determine whether a given state action violates the First Amendment by “establishing” religion. Though the Justices themselves have never ruled on the narrow question of whether vouchers may be used for sectarian schools, several lower courts—including the federal district court in Cleveland—have concluded that such programs are unconstitutional under Lemon and its judicial progeny.

A second set of civic-minded objections to school choice has to do with the nation’s historic commitment to public education. As a practical matter, opponents charge, government-financed vouchers invariably rob public schools of much-needed resources—not only scarce education dollars but also top students, since private schools exploit voucher programs by “skimming” or “cherry-picking” only the highest achievers. What such a policy amounts to, writes Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), is “to hell with all the kids left behind.”

Adding to this injustice, antivoucher spokesmen say, is the fact that citizens have virtually no way of knowing whether their tax dollars are being spent well by private schools. People for the American Way, a liberal interest group, warns that the schools receiving vouchers “lack basic standards of public accountability for their funds and management” and have resisted further regulation. Most damning are the problems experienced in Milwaukee, where several scandal-ridden private schools have closed in the middle of the academic year, leaving students and parents to fend for themselves.

Finally, the adversaries of vouchers contend, if private education expands at the expense of the public-school system, the shift will severely weaken America’s democratic habits and ideals. Some predict that school choice will place government funds in the hands of extremists—critics warn of “Farrakhan” or “creationist” schools—or that it will serve, in the words of one representative of the NAACP, as a “subterfuge for segregation.”

But the broader concern is that the venerable tradition of the “common school”—ingrained in the national imagination by the experience of generations of successfully assimilated immigrants—will be abandoned in the rush to privatize. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in a classroom of diverse peers will give way, it is feared, to the (publicly supported) cultivation of narrow religious and ethnic interests, further damaging our already fragile sense of national identity. As the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest and most powerful teachers’ union, has declared, “At a time when America is fractured by race, religion, and income, we can’t afford to replace the one remaining unifying institution in the country with a system of private schools pursuing private agendas at taxpayer expense.”

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Are the opponents right? Would the spread of school choice, whatever its benefits for a fortunate few, do grave harm to our common culture, and to the republic?

As far as the constitutional question goes, it is useful to start—as these discussions seldom do—with the actual text of the First Amendment, the relevant portion of which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” For most of American history, this language was taken to mean precisely what it says and what its 18th-century authors intended: that the federal government—and the federal government alone—has no authority over religion. The states, by contrast, could do as they wished in these matters, limited only by the protections for religious liberty enshrined in their own constitutions.

All this changed in the 1940’s, when the Supreme Court decided through a bit of legal legerdemain that every level of American government was bound by the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Suddenly, the Court found itself having to rule on the constitutionality of a range of church-state relationships over which it previously had had no say, including the question of whether state and local governments could give aid to religious schools, as many of them had been doing for some time.

In the earliest of these cases, the Court showed some willingness to accommodate the practices that had grown up under the old federalism-based arrangement. Thus, the Justices gave their imprimatur to government assistance whose content was plainly secular, like textbooks and reimbursement for transportation. But by the early 1970’s, this attitude had changed dramatically. In Lemon, the Court ruled that a secular purpose was not enough. In addition, no program aiding sectarian schools could have the “primary effect” of advancing religion or result in an “excessive entanglement” between church and state—a “test,” as it turned out in several cases decided shortly thereafter, that effectively banned almost every form of state aid, including such seemingly innocent items as maps, instructional films, and laboratory equipment.

For the past two decades, the Supreme Court has struggled to make sense of these contradictory precedents. Though accepting the basic standard set by Lemon, the Justices have tried to apply it in a way that will not automatically find the “establishment” of religion in any program that somehow benefits a sectarian institution. In the most important of these cases—Mueller v. Allen (1983), Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind (1986), Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District (1993), and Agostini v. Felton (1997)—the Court has upheld several different forms of public aid to students in religious schools. Such assistance is permissible, the Justices have ruled, when it comes about as part of a broader, religiously neutral program and when its benefits accrue to religious schools only indirectly, through the private decisions of individuals.

For school vouchers, the implications could not be clearer. As the highest state courts in both Wisconsin and Ohio have held, the programs currently operating in Milwaukee and Cleveland easily meet the requirements laid down by the Supreme Court: families may opt for a religious or a secular school, and the schools themselves receive public funds only as a result of these private choices. Even so strict a church-state separationist as Harvard Law School’s Laurence Tribe admits that, “One would have to be awfully clumsy to write voucher legislation that could not pass constitutional scrutiny.”

None of this has prevented a handful of judges from overturning publicly financed vouchers by invoking the Supreme Court’s Lemon-era cases, but it is widely expected that the recent federal-court ruling against Cleveland’s program will finally prompt the Justices to resolve the issue. If that decision falls to the current members of the Court—a big “if,” to be sure, since several of them are likely to retire after the 2000 election—they are almost certain to find that school vouchers are perfectly compatible with the First Amendment.2

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Of course, the fact that vouchers are constitutional does not make them sound policy. Most Americans are understandably reluctant to see tax dollars spent to support religion, even indirectly. The exceptions to this rule—so commonplace today as to be uncontroversial—are various programs that let sectarian institutions use public funds to meet some obvious secular need: few object when a federal Pell grant allows a low-income college student to attend Notre Dame or Brigham Young, or when New York City subsidizes an Orthodox charity that provides kosher food to housebound elderly Jews.

School vouchers fall into precisely the same category. Yes, they may incidentally promote one or another religious creed, but their primary purpose is to improve the educational prospects of inner-city students trapped in our very worst public schools. Low-income parents who take advantage of vouchers know all this. Asked by researchers why they participate in the programs, they give reasons based overwhelmingly on academic concerns; religious considerations trail far behind. For them, school choice is above all a way to save their children’s minds, not their souls.

As for the damage that vouchers would supposedly inflict on public schools, the arguments advanced by the teachers’ unions and their allies are deeply disingenuous, if not dishonest. From a financial point of view, it is certainly true that public-school budgets are likely to decline as students leave for private institutions, taking some part of their per-pupil funding with them. But it is unclear why this should create any special hardship, since the schools would be losing money only for students whom they are no longer expected to educate. Moreover, because per-pupil support comes from both state and local funds, and vouchers tend to be financed exclusively with the state’s share (and often not even all of that), affected public schools already get to keep much of the money earmarked for students who decide to enroll elsewhere—receiving a bonus, in effect, for driving them away. In the 1996-97 school year, this dividend amounted in both Cleveland and Milwaukee to some $3,000 for each departing voucher student.

That the professed concern of the teachers’ unions over the financial consequences of vouchers has little to do with the fate of students “left behind” was neatly demonstrated by the journalist Matthew Miller in a recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Interviewing Bob Chase, the president of the NEA, Miller proposed an experiment in which funding for education would be raised by 20 percent in several cities; every student would receive a voucher for his share of the newly enlarged budget, to be used as he and his parents saw fit. By this means, students who chose to remain in public schools would be guaranteed generous financial support. Chase rejected the idea outright—and did so again even when Miller suggested doubling or even tripling the amount of money. In their approach to vouchers, as to a host of other education reforms proposed in recent years—from giving principals more authority to fire incompetent teachers to expanding the number of independent and (usually) non-unionized “charter” schools—the one great imperative for both the NEA and the AFT has been to preserve the jobs of their members.

No less cynical is the charge that school choice serves only the most capable students, leaving the toughest cases for the public schools. As one study after another has confirmed, the children who use vouchers are hardly distinguishable from their peers, whether in terms of race, income, family background, or academic performance. Nor should this come as a surprise, since these programs do not seek out the most talented students (or, for that matter, allow participating private schools to do so), and are restricted to families that qualify for the federal school-lunch program or meet some other means test. In many cases, in fact, vouchers are used by the worst-performing students—for the commonsense reason that their parents are the ones most likely to be unhappy with the public schools.

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The issue of accountability is somewhat more slippery. As one might expect, the private schools that accept vouchers vary in quality, and a few have been truly awful. By all reports, though, the vast majority are reasonably well managed and, more important, employ educators profoundly committed to their disadvantaged students; most work for a fraction of what their unionized public-school counterparts earn.

More to the point, like all private schools, these must comply with state regulations concerning health, safety, attendance, and the basic structure of the curriculum. In order to qualify for vouchers, they often must meet other requirements as well. In Milwaukee, such requirements run the gamut from nondiscrimination laws to accounting practices. Though this sort of regulation hardly ensures that the schools will be problem-free, it does hold them to a meaningful standard of fairness and professional competence.

When the critics of vouchers demand still more formal accountability, their intent is seldom benign. By attaching additional regulatory strings—reporting requirements, elaborate administrative procedures, restrictions on single-sex programs or on using teachers uncertified by the state—they hope to drive away as many private schools as possible, threatening to erode what the AFT, in mock concern, calls their “cherished autonomy and independence.” Opponents also understand that if the rules end up involving public officials too intimately in the operation of religious schools, courts will be likelier to throw out the whole program as an “excessive entanglement” of church and state. As Susan Mitchell of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute observes, the campaign for further regulation of private schools is “part of a clear strategy to either kill choice or limit its growth.”

Needless to say, no one would wish to see public funds wasted on schools that fail to educate or that just function as job services for those who run them. But legitimate as such concerns may be in the case of voucher programs, they apply with still greater force to the massively bureaucratized and patronage-riddled public-school systems of our big cities. After decades of abysmal performance, with no end in sight, how are they to be held accountable? For all the talk about the need to impose stricter oversight, private schools are already subject to a form of accountability that inner-city public-school officials almost never have to face: the possibility that dissatisfied families will simply decide to educate their children somewhere else.

In fact, one beneficial consequence of the school-choice programs now in existence is that they have begun to shake this complacency. After the philanthropist Virginia Gilder offered vouchers to every student at the worst elementary school in Albany, New York, local education officials rushed into action, hiring a new principal, sacking 20 percent of the school’s teachers, and revamping its reading curriculum. In Florida, the schools whose poor records have made their students eligible for the state’s voucher program have begun to “fight back,” according to one newspaper report; they have introduced, among other things, after-school and Saturday tutoring, more classroom instruction in the basics, and home visits to parents in order to discourage truancy. Most impressive of all is the case of Milwaukee, where a reformist school board, strongly opposed by the teachers’ union whose minions have long dominated school governance in the city, was elected last spring on a platform welcoming the competitive challenge posed by vouchers.

If school choice were implemented on a much grander scale—with full public funding for considerably more low-income families—there is ample reason to think that our inner-city public schools, far from suffering, might just begin to turn themselves around.

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As for the alarm sounded by critics about the destructive effect vouchers would have on America’s democratic ethos, here too there has been much exaggeration, often of a self-serving nature. The fact is that our public schools, whatever their past glories, are not the engines for Americanization that they once were. On the other hand, private schools turn out to do a much better job these days at citizen education, perhaps because their generally more traditional bent has insulated them to some degree from the antipatriotic dictates of multiculturalism.

On the civics portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the results of which were announced this past November, 80 percent of private-school seniors demonstrated basic “civic competency,” as compared to just 63 percent of their public-school counterparts—roughly the same margin as prevailed in the scores for fourth and eighth graders as well. Significantly, the test measured both knowledge of government and civic disposition in the broadest sense, including the readiness of students to respect “individual worth and human dignity” and to assume “the personal, political, and economic responsibilities of a citizen.”

Private schools also do better at approximating the ideal of the American “melting pot,” as studies by Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute have shown. Not only are they more racially integrated than public schools, but they are also home to more interracial friendships and less race-related fighting. As far as voucher programs go, rather than serving as a “subterfuge for segregation,” they have usually allowed students to enter more racially mixed schools. This is because private schools in our big cities typically enroll students from different parts of the community, while public schools, even after—or perhaps because of—decades of forced busing, tend to reflect the ethnically homogeneous make-up of their neighborhoods.

What, finally, of the extremists who may use vouchers as a vehicle for antidemocratic creeds? It is safe to say that the most extreme of them are unlikely to tolerate the regulations that come along with vouchers, not least the almost universal requirement that schools accept any student interested in attending. But this is not to deny that some of the private schools taking part in voucher programs in inner cities do aim to cultivate narrower identities—identities that make many Americans, particularly of the prosperous, white, secular variety, deeply uneasy.

In an article for City Journal, Sol Stern visited one such school in Milwaukee, the Believers in Christ Christian Academy. The people running the school, he wrote, teach “the literalness of the Scriptures,” and do not “separate their faith from their role as educators.” The preoccupations of other voucher schools in Milwaukee are discussed in a new book by Mikel Holt, the editor of Wisconsin’s largest African-American newspaper and a self-described “black nationalist.”3 Holt writes passionately about the need of black children for an “African-centered curriculum,” one in which they will be constantly reminded that “their ancestors didn’t mysteriously appear on Earth as slaves, but were creators of science and math and the arts.”

Such educational philosophies can, admittedly, promote disquietingly false ideas. They can also lead to Balkanization (or worse). Yet, they do not seem to preclude—and may even encourage—serious learning. As the founder of Believers in Christ told Stern, “We absolutely believe in our faith, but we also believe that there is a body of knowledge that our children must know in order to survive in the real world.” For his part, Holt boasts that Afrocentric schools in Milwaukee are places where “disciplined, respectful” students can be found “performing advanced algebra” and “speaking the Queen’s English.” The bottom line with school choice, he emphasizes, is that it helps “solve the problem of an ill-prepared workforce.”

Indeed, for all the civic angst displayed by the critics of vouchers, the most urgent threat to the health of our cities is not an excess of religiosity or even of ethnic self-assertion, however worrisome some of its manifestations. Rather, it is that an enormous and growing number of poor, mostly minority teenagers will continue to emerge from our urban public schools utterly lacking in the skills and habits they will need to find a place in the country’s social and economic mainstream. Vouchers can help to reverse this cruel process of marginalization, both for the students who receive them and for those who remain in the public schools. What could be more democratic—or more American—than that?

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This brings us to perhaps the most peculiar feature of the current debate over vouchers: namely, how few liberals have embraced what is so quintessentially liberal a cause. After all, most middle-class Americans already have school choice: they possess the wherewithal either to pick communities where the public schools are good or to pay for private education, and they know how to make the most of public magnet schools and programs for the gifted. Only the less-well-off have to put up with whatever the local school bureaucracy sees fit to provide their children. As John E. Coons, a retired law professor at Berkeley and a long-ignored voucher advocate on the Left, has written, “The rich choose; the poor get conscripted.”

But why so many liberals—and, by extension, the Democratic party—are so fiercely resistant to school choice is really no mystery. For decades now, an absolutist and completely ahistorical view of church-state separation has been a defining creed of the American Left. At the same time, and more understandably, liberals remain attached to a public-school system that has served the country well in the past and continues to do so in some ways today, especially in the suburbs. And then there are the teachers’ unions, whose three million members stand to lose the most if vouchers succeed, and who are perhaps the most influential constituency in the Democratic party, having sent more delegates to the 1996 Democratic national convention than did the entire state of California.

Still, both politically and morally, the almost frankly reactionary character of the antivoucher position is growing less tenable by the day. While leading Republicans and conservatives speak out for the educational interests of the urban poor, liberal and Democratic standard-bearers continue to stonewall for a status quo that even they must admit is unacceptable—a stance no less embarrassing to the traditions of the Democratic party than to the democratic traditions of the country.

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Footnotes

1 See Peterson’s “A Report Card on School Choice,” COMMENTARY, October 1997.

2 Whether vouchers are consistent with state constitutions is a separate question. Many states have so-called “Blaine amendments,” passed during the anti-Catholic ferment of the late 19th century and explicitly intended to prevent public funds from reaching parochial schools. It is important to note that these restrictions came about largely as the result of a failed effort to pass such an amendment to the federal Constitution—further evidence, if any were needed, that until the middle of this century, the First Amendment was universally understood to pose no barrier to such aid. For a complete discussion of this constitutional history and its implications for the debate over vouchers, see Joseph P. Viteritti’s invaluable new book, Choosing Equality; School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society. Brookings Institution Press, 284 pp., $29.95.

3 Not Yet “Free at Last”: The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights MovementOur Battle for School Choice. Institute for Contemporary Studies, 294 pp., $19.95.

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About the Author

Gary Rosen is the former managing editor of COMMENTARY .




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