June 30, 2002
NYT Wrong on vouchers

An editorial from the New York Times (linked to by the International Herald-Tribune, where I found it) argues against vouchers. Of course, coming from the New York Times, this is no surprise. I have a few issues with the editorial (again, this is no surprise).

In theory, Cleveland's voucher program allows children to use state stipends to go to any school they want. In practice, the choice it offers them is between a failing public school system and the city's parochial schools. This is not a choice that the constitution intended public tax money to underwrite.

The constitution intends for public schools that are utterly failing to educate children to continue receiving subsidies to do so?

The problem with the Cleveland program begins with the size of the stipends, which are capped at $2,250. That is far less than most private schools cost. But it is just right for parochial schools where, for a variety of reasons, tuition is far lower. Not surprisingly, fully 96.6 percent of students end up taking their vouchers to religiously affiliated schools.

So you are arguing that the stipends should be increased? I think I can agree with that.

Some of the "variety of reasons" the tuition is lower in parochial schools is fewer administrators per teacher, less union influence over policy, fewer electives (a greater focus on core education), and smaller maintenance costs. Security is seldom a concern in parochial schools (no metal detectors, for example), and vandalism is negligible, as opposed to public schools.

Once students enroll in those schools, they are subjected to just the sort of religious training the First Amendment forbids the state to underwrite. In many cases, students are required to attend Mass or other religious services. Tax dollars go to buy Bibles, prayer books, crucifixes and other religious iconography. It is hard to think of a starker assault on the doctrine of separation of church and state than taking taxpayer dollars and using them to inculcate specific religious beliefs in young people.

This is simply incorrect. Since the state is not allocating money to the church, there is no "underwriting" involved. The school is simply subcontracting the task of educating the child, since the state-run schools apparently cannot accomplish the task.

The majority argues that the Cleveland program does not, as a technical matter, violate the First Amendment because it is parents, not the government, who are choosing where the money goes. But given the reality of education in Cleveland, parents do not have the wealth of options that would make their selection of religious schools meaningful. And in any case, the money ultimately comes from taxpayers, and therefore should not be directed - by whatever route - to finance religious training.

Given the reality of education in Cleveland, sending children to anything other than a religious school is either too expensive (secular private schools) or worthless (sending them to public schools).

Since the voucher program has survived all of the court challenges, and cannot be overturned, expect to see an increase in the number of private schools that accept them, and perhaps an increase of the number of secular schools that open to service the voucher students.

This ruling does as much damage to education as it does to the First Amendment. A common argument for vouchers is that they improve public schools by forcing them to compete for students. What is holding the public schools back, however, is not lack of competitive drive but the resources to succeed. Voucher programs like Cleveland's siphon off public dollars, leaving struggling urban systems with less money for skilled teachers, textbooks and computers. They also skim off some of the best-performing students, and the most informed and involved parents, from public schools that badly need their expertise and energy.

The public schools in Cleveland are not suffering from a lack of resources. Per-pupil spending is $8,814, so a $2250 voucher means a net gain of $6564 for each student offloaded to the private school system. For what it is worth, since the initiation of the voucher program, the spending per pupil has increased almost 10% in Cleveland.

The Times is looking for an "equality of outcome", where all students perform the same. The problem with that is that some students are not able to do well, and insisting upon equality results in all students performing poorly. Forcing students whose abilities exceed the norm, but whose parents cannot afford to send them to a private school, is wrong. It destroys them, and almost guarantees a lack of success later in life. Is this what the Times is actually advocating?

The decision Thursday also undermines one of the public school system's most important functions: teaching democracy and pluralism. In public schools, Americans of many backgrounds learn together. In the religious schools that Cleveland taxpayers are being forced to sponsor, Roman Catholics are free to teach that their way is best, and Jews, Muslims and those of other faiths can teach their co-religionists that they have truth on their side. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in dissent, "Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy." This court has removed many bricks.

Australia, unlike the United States, has public financing of religious schools. Last I looked, Australia was not a hotbed of religious strife.

Another issue—many of the minority students who attend parochial schools are not practitioners of the religion that sponsors the school. (More than half of the voucher students are black, a plurality of whom attend Catholic schools, yet the African-American population in this country is overwhelmingly Baptist). That is a type of diversity that the public schools cannot hope to teach.

In addition, the Cleveland public schools are overwhelmingly minority; sending minority children to parochial schools increases their exposure to whites and to other ethnic groups, rather than remaining in the de facto segregation that exists in the public schools.

posted on June 30, 2002 09:24 PM


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