School vouchers use tax dollars to support religion

March 11, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

Organizations monitoring activities relative to separation of church and state are sending out their assessments of this year’s expectations. One major sentinel reports an “avalanche” of action to promote school vouchers.

They seem not to be deterred by questions of constitutionality or an absence of proof that vouchers are effective. Worse, they refuse to admit that the funds allocated for vouchers drain from the already inadequate provision to state school systems.

If Jefferson’s opinion matters, a statement made in 1779 will show that vouchers will not pass constitutional muster: “That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical; that even forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern ...”

Then, in 1802, Jefferson joined this idea and others to the First Amendment, and the courts have consistently interpreted them to serve as the basis for the principle of separation of church and state. Vouchers are just another means to test the meaning of Jefferson’s words.
As the cost of maintaining educational facilities goes up, the arguments to get more and more public funds to support private and parochial schools get more desperate.

The “double-burden” argument is a case in point. Accordingly, those who choose to send their children to private or parochial schools pay fees to attend these schools and then are required to pay again to support public schools. Thus they are carrying a double burden. Actually, they have only made a switch as to who will carry the double burden.

Now, the parents of children who attend public schools will pay taxes to support public schools and then carry the additional costs to support all private and parochial schools. Those who opted to purchase a different product should be willing to pay for that product.

The foregoing point does not seem to influence the thinking of those who continue to lobby for public funds. This past summer, no fewer  than 300 organizations seeking to get financial aid to private schools met in San Francisco to plot their strategy for this year. This visibility makes political figures think twice about a vote on principle.

At this moment, huge sums of money are being raised to persuade Congress and state legislatures to enact voucher programs. Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Joe Lieberman have endorsed voucher plans for the District of Columbia. The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Walton Family Foundation and the other large donors are behind this re-energized move in support of vouchers.

In Maryland, last year, a plan to allocate $10 million to parochial schools in Baltimore failed to get approval. The plan has been reintroduced for legislative consideration this year.

Over the years there have been two lines of thought on which to base support for vouchers. The first is simply grounded on the need for money to maintain private and parochial schools as the costs go higher and higher. The second rationale comes from anti-government adherents who want to privatize all features of social activity.

Some would include a third element into this mix by mention of those who favor the reduction of the influence of secular humanism, which they assert to be prevalent in public schools.

Those who are convinced of the virtue of education grounded on religion have every right to organize and raise money from private sources to operate a system of private and parochial schools. They, however, should confine their efforts to voluntary sources.

As Benjamin Franklin so wisely said, “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend of its being a bad one.”

It is difficult to improve on this way of stating the case.

While we continue to separate the schools that wish to get support from public funds into private and parochial schools, it must be realized that most of the private schools are run by religious organizations. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 76 percent of private schools have a religious affiliation. Also, more than 80 percent of students attending private schools are enrolled in religious institutions.

This makes it clear that wherever vouchers appear, American citizens are paying taxes to support religion. This is a violation of the First Amendment and is, therefore, unacceptable as public policy.

Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College. He writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail.

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