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Allan Powell: New twist to support school vouchers fails

April 19, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

There is no secret to the relentless attempts to get public funds to support religious schools. The constitutionality of the use of vouchers is being tested in state courts at the moment with the Indiana Supreme Court upholding vouchers.

One notable enthusiast for vouchers is using an atypical defense to support their use. Michael Gerson (published March 2 in The Washington Post), a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, has borrowed from economic theory what he supposes will bolster the case for vouchers. He is mistaken.

According to Gerson, “The school choice movement — which germinated 50 years ago in free market economist Milton Freedman’s fertile mind — recently counted its largest victory” (The Indiana Supreme Court decision). He then argues that, “It is a paradox Friedman would have appreciated. Vouchers have been blocked by unions resisting market forces and by suburban parents reflecting those forces.”

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Both Gerson and Friedman are off the mark when they employ economic models in education where “market forces” have little or no relevance. Education (if religious) is more governed by doctrinal and sectarian preferences while public education is governed by categorical imperatives (categorical = admits of no exceptions) inherent in a democracy.

Religious education is a choice — one which is to be respected in a pluralistic society. Public education, however, is a primary requirement to cultivate an educated citizenry independent of sectarian entanglements. It is a cost item — a price we pay to have an informed public, able to make rational judgments about social policy.

Just as it is a perpetual battle to maintain Jefferson’s “wall” of separation between church and state, it is equally difficult to keep a clear distinction between a purely educational service model and a for-profit enterprise model. Cultivating a well-tutored mind or developing sophisticated technical skills can become very expensive. As the cost goes up, religious institutions are now more tempted to reach for assistance from government.

Unfortunately, this solution is clearly at odds with our tradition of religious liberty and separating church and state. It is saddening to witness denominations, whose early convictions called for a clear separation, now concocting sophistry to defend a basic alteration in their church policy. Gerson carries the economic model further by alleging that public education is promoting monopolies in neighborhood schools.

It is true that only public schools exist in small communities. However, every denomination is free to create a faith-based school if they so wish. This is not the case in the economic sphere in which monopolies would be rampant if antitrust laws were not passed and enforced. In a nutshell, while businesses may be governed by “market conditions,” schools are governed by the presence and power of public vision about intellectual riches.

The old arguments for vouchers, while manifestly spurious, were not disguised by flawed economic ideas.

The once used “double burden” argument is almost absent from those who want public funds to help support religious schools. Accordingly, they argued that those who paid tuition at a parochial school also paid another fee in taxes to support schools they did not attend. This was, however, a voluntary choice.

This simply switched the double burden to parents whose children attended public schools. They now were funding parochial schools and it was not voluntary.

What is most important about all of the arguments in support of vouchers is that they are unconstitutional. A conservative think tank might introduce economic arguments on “market conditions” as an aid to choice of educational opportunity, but they all must pass constitutional muster. If Gerson wants to improve education, he would be less concerned about vouchers and “market conditions” and help improve the internal conditions facing our public schools. More vouchers would only drain more much needed money out of our schools.

In closing, it is interesting to reflect on the peculiar situation of the Republican Party. While they are now engaged in a massive effort to advance “choice” into our educational system, they are equally engaged in taking away “choice” for women. There vision is badly impaired.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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