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Vouchers: Enemy of Religion

September 1, 1998

From The Wanderer, September 1998

Supporters of school vouchers are jumping for joy over a Wisconsin Supreme
Court edict that permits tax dollars to be used at religious schools. They
hope the decision will be the basis of a vast expansion of vouchers (four
other states are debating this same question), eventually leading to a
federal voucher program that will "privatize" all education.

But there are flies in this ointment, enough to cause religious
conservatives to rethink any sympathies they've had for vouchers. For the
court did not rule that religious schools can
receive government money with no strings attached. It ruled narrowly on the
Milwaukee
program itself, which only passed muster because of its rigid restrictions.
Though few will
actually read the decision, it is perfectly clear that in order to receive
vouchers, religious
schools will have to surrender all control over admissions and gut any
doctrinal teaching
integral to their curriculum.

First, let's deal with the eligibility criteria for students. The money is
not available for
the children of middle-class people who actually pay the taxes that support
the public
schools. It is available only for those the government defines as "poor,"
the very group that
already enjoys vast subsidies in the form of free medical care, housing, day
care, food, and
cash. Vouchers represent not a shrinkage of this welfare state but an
expansion, the
equivalent of food stamps for private school.

What's more, vouchers are available only for children currently in public
school,
which creates perverse incentives and strikes at the heart of fairness.
Parents scraping by to
pay their child's tuition at a parochial school get nothing, but the
next-door neighbor, who
lets her kid founder in the streets and the public schools, gets a full
scholarship. Parents will
have every incentive to rip children out of private schools and put themback into the public
ones temporarily, just to be eligible for the program.

And what about middle-class kids in the private school? We know how much
animosity small freebies like meals for some but not others create in public
school. What
about free tuition at private schools for some but not others? No matter how
you slice it,
vouchers represent more welfare, another free lunch for the underclass paid
for by everyone
else.

Second, vouchers will have a disastrous effect on religious schools, which
will have no
choice about which voucher students they can accept. Catholic schools cannot
pick
Catholics over Hindus. Single-sex education is out. Nor may schools consider
a history of
abject academic failure or even violence. In fact, the court underscored
that schools are
prohibited from exercising any judgement whatsoever about the students they
take in (except
that they may give preference to siblings). As Supreme Court Judge Donald J.
Steinmetz,
writing for the majority, said in these startling sentences, beneficiaries
are to be "selected on a
random basis from all those pupils who apply and meet these
religious-neutral criteria." And
again, "the participating private schools must select on a random basis the
students attending
their schools."

That's right: random admissions, somewhat like public schools. The
inability to pick
and choose among students, and kick out students who don't cut it in
academics or
discipline, is one of the reasons public schools are in trouble. Apply the
same rule to private
schools, especially religious schools, and you go a long way toward making
them carbon
copies of the schools so many are anxious to flee. Many of the recent public
school shootings
have been committed by students enthralled to Satanic cults. Vouching-taking
schools would not
be allowed to exclude even them.

Look at the demographics of the students in the Milwaukee program. As
reported by
Daniel McGroarty in the Public Interest, the great majority are on welfare
and all are "very
near the bottom in terms of academic achievement" and exhibit "a history of
behavior-related
problems." Do we want these kids crashing the private schools of the country
at taxpayer
expense? No wonder the likes of far-leftist Polly Williams is
celebrating.

Third, regarding the religious content of the curriculum, the Wisconsin
state
legislature added an "opt-out" provision that prohibits a private school
from requiring a
student "to participate in any religious activity if the pupil's parent or
guardian submits to the
teacher or the private school's principal a written request that the pupil
be exempt from such
activities." The existence of this provision helped persuade the court that
there was no
violation of the U.S. Supreme Court's diktats about church and state.

But this betrays an astounding ignorance of the way many religious schools
teach.
There is no such thing as a "religious activity" separate from the general
learning program of
the school (as there might have been in public schools before the Supreme
Court prohibited
even that). The very purpose of these schools is to weave religious values
into the process of
learning.

When these schools teach reading, among the books they select are those of
Holy
Scripture, and nearly all readings will have some religious lesson behind
them. When these
schools teach history, the history of religion is integral. When they teach
art, they use
religious imagery. When they teach science, they include Biblical accounts
of God's hand
moving at the creation of the world. In these schools, the study of
literature means, in part,learning about religious writing.

The court's mandate requires that the religious side of the curriculum be
distinct and
separate from the secular curriculum, and that the secular side be large
enough to prepare
students to pass standardized tests. In practice, this will require any
supposed religious school
to model itself on non-sectarian schools or public schools, and to do so in
opposition to the
parents who are shelling out tuition money precisely so their children will
have their faith
reinforced.

Prayer will be allowed, so long as ample time is provided for opting-out
students, even
if there is only one, to leave the classroom. And can the teacher make
casual reference to
religious doctrine in the course of the day without first permitting
opting-out students to
cover their ears? And what about something as simple as a crucifix or a
statue of the Blessed Mother in a classroom? Is looking at them a "religious activity"? In that
case, they must be
tossed out, just as they were in Catholic universities taking government
money in the 1940s.

Keep in mind that these are only the first round of restrictions.
Inevitably, there will
be new challenges to particular practices of these religious schools, and if
the courts continue
in the direction they've been heading for 50 years, religion will be
systematically banished. In
order to avoid lawsuits, schools will err on the side of caution by
voluntarily cutting the heart
out of their programs.

Knowing the implications of these "opt-out" clauses, Cardinal Hickey of
Washington,
D.C., refused to allow his diocesan schools to participate in voucher
programs. His refusal
effectively and thankfully killed a bill in Congress that would have
allocated the money.

Yet even without opt-out clauses, government money always poses a danger.
Control follows tax money, so vouchers guarantee that the whole system of private
education will
eventually be absorbed into a gigantic government-funded propaganda machine,
with the
only pockets of diversity being schools that refuse any subsidies at all,
though they will then
be frequently outcompeted. This is precisely what happened on the university
level, with a
disastrous homogenization and dumbing-down.

The idea of vouchers originated on the neoconservative right with Milton
Friedman,
but increasingly, the left has figured out that vouchers represent their
dream come true: more
special privileges for the poor, an expansion of the welfare state, the elim
ination of exclusive
admissions, and the destruction of anachronisms like schools that still
teach religious truth.
We face an unholy alliance of big-government libertarians and equality
activists of all stripes
to rob us of what remains of educational freedom, and to do so in the name
of serving up ever
more of our tax dollars to the underclass.

Meanwhile, the advocates of vouchers are busy trampling on decades of
conservative
attacks on the notion of a "right to a quality education," which is a slogan
of the left now
recklessly tossed around by the Institute for Justice and the rest of the
Beltway cabal. But be
aware that the language of voucher supporters is drawn from an alien
tradition that has no
regard for limiting power and protecting property, and no appreciation for
the natural
inequalities of social position that are an inherent part of a free society.

To truly equalize
educational opportunity would require yet another massive round of judicial
activism to
override neighborhood, town, and state jurisdiction, as well as the
distinctions between
producers and non-producers, which is apparently what the leaders of the
voucher movement
advocate.

We are seldom spared the tyranny of the judiciary imposed on us by leftistegalitarians,
who think nothing of robbing us and abolishing our right to self government.
Must we also
suffer this fate at the hands of left-libertarians and neoconservatives
stupefied by egalitarian
fantasies of state-subsidized racial uplift? Not if voters have anything
to say about it.
Proposition 174 in California, a model piece of voucher legislation backed
by all the usual
suspects, crashed and burned at the polls for the very reasons laid out
here. But now the
activists are cheering on the courts to destroy private schools and what's
left of decent public
schools, at our expense.

Just as bad, vouchers reinforce the twin evils of public education:
involuntary funding
and compulsory attendance. As Mark Brandly of Ball State University has
pointed out,
compulsory attendance laws not only violate parental rights, they allow
government to define
what a school is, and therefore to outlaw such developments as small,
informal neighborhood
schools, held in homes, where one mother teaches arithmetic, another
reading, another
Christian doctrine, and so on. Yet today, such alternative schools are
illegal. Vouchers do
nothing to end that oppressive situation, and, in fact, go in the opposite
direction: toward
more draconian regulation and attempted abolition of religious education.

Religious conservatives need a more radical agenda. Get the federal
government out of education, and cut federal taxes drastically, so parents
can keep more of
their own money. Eliminate the taxes that now fund the public-education
industry at the state level, and keep all taxes and decision-making at the
local level. The
ultimate goal must be entirely private education. Government is always in
competition with
God, since it wants children trained to worship it. As for private and
especially religious
schools, including home schools and cooperative groups of home schools, we
must oppose any
restrictions whatsoever. The push for vouchers is not only a distraction
from this urgent agenda; it is destructionism masquerading as freedom.

______________________________
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is president of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.

See also, Tom DiLorenzo on The Truth About The G.I Bill.", Carl Horowitz on the idea that vouchers are necessary reparations, and David Gordon's review of a book by David Frum.


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