Vouchers in Court

On December 11, 2000, in a decision now headed to the Supreme Court, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, violates the separation of church and state. The program provides tuition vouchers of $2,500 for low-income children to attend private schools. Over fourth-fifths of the students who benefit attend religious schools, and most of these are Catholic. In a bitter dissent, Judge James L. Ryan said the majority decision "sentenc[es] nearly 4,000 poverty-level, mostly minority, children in Cleveland to return to the indisputably failed Cleveland public schools."

Debates about government aid to religious schools are not new, but couching them in terms of whether public schools "fail" more than private schools is a new twist. This argument joins a number of disparate forces in a temporary pact of convenience: those who sincerely believe that competition will improve education for the disadvantaged, along with free-marketeers and antistaters who want to destroy public schools' near monopoly on education, upper-middle-class tuition payers who think of inner-city vouchers as the opening wedge in a campaign that will ultimately subsidize all private schools, and religious institutions struggling to maintain sectarian schools in a harsh economic environment for such endeavors.

Statistical and anecdotal evidence for a superior-private-school effect is weak. Inner-city private schools, most of which are Catholic, suffer from the same problems of large class sizes, unqualified teachers, outdated curricula, lack of parental involvement, and stressful family and community circumstances as do neighboring public schools. In some cases, the problems are exacerbated in private schools that have less funding than public ones.

During the twentieth century, most battles about aid to private schools were fought at the federal level. At first, Catholic leaders opposed all aid: They feared federal involvement in education would lead to federal control of education and the eventual prohibition of sectarian schools. Then, once the Supreme Court ruled in 1947 that limited aid for strictly secular purposes (bus transportation and, later, textbooks) was constitutional, liberals opposed federal aid for fear that it would develop into greater assistance for parochial schools. A bitter public dispute between New York's Francis Cardinal Spellman and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1949 was fueled by Mrs. Roosevelt's beliefs that federal aid for education was a stalking-horse for formation of a Catholic political party, recognition of General Franco in Spain, and Vatican influence in American politics.

It was not until the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 that any federal aid program for education could be adopted. For the first 30 years of its existence, federal aid for disadvantaged children (Title 1) in parochial schools had to be creatively disbursed. Publicly funded teachers of remedial classes worked in trailers on Catholic school playgrounds so as not to be illegally teaching inside a church building. Not until 1997, in Agostini v. Felton, did the Supreme Court say that it was okay to bring the Title 1 teachers indoors.

Since the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency, and his (brief) successful tenure in which the power of the Vatican in American politics did not appear to grow, the Catholic Church has seemed to many Americans to be less of a threat to the nation's pluralism than before. The Church's inner-city schools themselves are in dire financial straits, as middle-class Catholics have left for the suburbs and new parishioners, many of them Hispanic immigrants, are too poor to pay the rising costs of education (partly because of the new need to hire fully paid secular teachers).

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To alleviate these financial concerns, Church leaders would sorely wish to build upon the transportation, textbook, and Title 1 precedents at the state and federal levels. Such aid would not be easy to negotiate, but it would be possible. To attain government-subsidized salaries for secular (math, reading) teachers, private schools might have to administer state math and reading tests and be accountable for the results like public schools. Yet such aid would not force Catholic and other religious schools to stake their claims on the shaky notion that they provide a secular education that is superior to that of "failing" public schools; it would not force them to pretend they are simply alternative secular schools.

For they are not. The appeals court decision cites several school handbooks proclaiming the religious mission of Cleveland's voucher schools: For example, the Calvary Center Academy requires students to "pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands, One Savior crucified, risen and coming again with life and liberty for all who believe." It was to such institutions that Cleveland's vouchers are directed.

It may be that in America's evolving pluralism we want to make it easier for institutions with such purposes to survive. Or perhaps we do not. But this fundamental choice about the role of religion in our society should not be obscured by debates about whether religious schools can generate higher test scores for secular at-risk students--debates from which all parties are likely to emerge frustrated.

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