School vouchers OK'd

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted July 1998

The Constitution forbids Congress from "establishing" any religion, and that's a good thing.

The Founders were all too familiar with the British system, in which the head of state (the king) also wields religious authority, as titular head of the church. This is a dangerous combination, as any victim of the Spanish Inquisition might testify ... had more survived. Even in England, one of the founders of this country -- William Penn -- was put on trial in London for preaching an "illegal" Quaker sermon.

But is it "establishing" a religion to allow tax moneys earmarked for education to flow to private, church-run schools?

Not so long as this "benefit" is allowed to flow to any religious outfit that happens to be running a school.

California's Orange County Register may have put it best on its editorial page that week:

"The government provides numerous services to all residents of the territory it governs. If a fire breaks out at a church, the government fire department wouldn't refuse to put it out on the grounds that to do so would constitute a subsidy to the church that would violate the separation of church and state. The police would not refuse to answer a call about a robbery or a shooting on church property. ... If the fire department or police discriminated -- responding to calls from Lutherans but not from Episcopalians, for example -- then you might have a First Amendment problem."

On June 10, in a decision which is expected to have nationwide impact, the Wisconsin state Supreme Court embraced this sound logic, upholding a state law which allows taxpayer funds to be used to cover the costs of private school tuition -- even in religious schools -- especially for lower-income students otherwise described as being "trapped" in inadequate, unsafe, urban schools.

Douglas Kmiec, a constitutional law professor at the University of Notre Dame, reports the justices found "The program was carefully structured to be religiously neutral -- that it was really the parents who were directing the funds ... so the state was not endorsing or establishing any religion."

Up till now, some 1 500 low-income students, described as victims of an inner-city school system in crisis, have been given vouchers worth about $4 400 apiece, to be used for tuition at private schools of their choice.

Now that the restriction has been lifted, Wisconsin officials say the pilot program (launched in 1990) will be expanded to include as many as 15 000 students who wish to attend dozens of religious and nonsectarian private schools.

Concerned that government moneys will thus go to educate children in specific religious doctrines, the American Civil Liberties Union vows to appeal. "We see any government support for religious education to be coercing all taxpayers to support religions with which they might not agree," says Adam Schwartz of the ACLU of Illinois. "The fact that the money passes through parents' hands on its way from the public treasury to the religious school doesn't make it any less of a constitutional violation."

Is there really much danger that legislators in Rhode Island (the union's only Catholic-majority state) and Utah will now use "vouchers" as a subterfuge to divert tax moneys into support of the Catholic and Mormon churches?

Anything is possible. But in fact, the larger risk is that -- if such vouchers are held to represent "tax money" -- dangerous strings will now come attached to these funds, as legislatures and courts reason that schools accepting these "government funds" should now be subject to government oversight as to how they're spent.

This could threaten to eliminate the very differences -- the very freedom from numbing and politically-correct conformity -- which make the private schools a better choice in the first place.

In the end, the Arizona model -- the Legislature in Phoenix passed a law last year which authorizes tax credits for those who donate to foundations which then provide private school scholarships -- may offer a better hope of helping disadvantaged students escape their mediocre, violence-riddled, government-monopoly youth camps, without poisoning this new refuge by imposing the same top-heavy, unionized bureaucracy that has crippled the government schools.

But at least some headway is being made, against the insidious notion that school funds "belong" to the government ant farm.

Families pay school taxes. If public education had failed in its promises to them, why not allow them to spend their education dollars where they please -- reinstilling some healthy competition into the system?

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Readers may contact him via e-mail at The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at The column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.

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