The five-member majority of the Supreme Court of the United States has endorsed a fiction that the voucher program in Ohio is neutral between religious and nonreligious private schools.
The proof is in the numbers. The percentage of children whose parents receive vouchers and use them to send their children to religious schools has been variously reported as between 95 and 98 percent. And many of those pupils did not flee from public schools that had failed them. They were already in parochial schools.
Whether vouchers were intended to do so or not, in Cleveland they are subsidizing religious education, and the court should have been able to see that as an unacceptable break in the wall of separation that is supposed to exist between church and state.
If the majority of the court didn't see that before its ruling, it would have seen it after the fact, had it followed news coverage in Cleveland. Parent after parent praised the court's decision, not because it allowed them to send their children to what they considered a better school academically, but because it allowed them to continue to send their children to a religious school with which they were philosophically comfortable.
Traditional religious education
It is a fine thing for parents to be able to send their children to religious schools, and for generations they have. Parents who sufficiently value such education, reach into their pockets and pay the tuition. Many parents who can't afford it are given scholarships by the religious organizations operating the schools.
That is as it should be. But taxpayers at large should not be footing the bill for children to attend Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Jewish or Muslim schools, to name just a few. No parent should have the ability to compel a fellow citizen to pay for the religious education of that parent's child. Incredibly, a majority on the Supreme Court couldn't or wouldn't see that.
It is going to be up to the citizens of the states -- including Ohio, which produced the case that resulted in this landmark weakening of the First Amendment -- to hold the line.
In Columbus, a cadre of politicians who have nothing but contempt for public education are going to be clamoring for an expansion of the voucher experiment. Let us hope that cooler heads prevail.
Let's hope that people stop and think about what an expansion of the voucher program could produce. If voucher money can go to conservative Christian schools, could it be denied to, say, a fundamentalist Islamic school?
To what extent will parochial schools that receive substantial amounts of tax money in the form of vouchers be required to conform to civil rights law? There have been lawsuits filed by teachers in Catholic schools who were fired for living with a partner out of wedlock or for marrying outside the church. Catholic schools facing such challenges have argued that the First Amendment gives them the right to run their schools in a manner consistent with church doctrine. Can they still claim such freedom while receiving general operating funds from the state?
Voucher programs are fundamentally flawed because they so clearly cross the line of separation of church and state, regardless of what a scant majority of justices may say.
At the heart of the voucher philosophy is the unique political contention that a parent is entitled to spend tax dollars however he or she chooses when it comes to education. We can think of no other area of taxation in which such a choice is codified. A taxpayer who is a pacifist could not say that he wanted none of his money to go to defense, but all of it to go to human services. A member of the armed services could not say she wanted all of her money to go to defense and none to highways.
If government embraces the concept that a parent of school age children has a right to spend tax money on a particular type of education for his or her child, what right does a childless taxpayer have? Should he or she get a $2,500 voucher that could be cashed with a travel agent or auto dealer? Of course not, because for more than 100 years a majority of Americans have recognized the need for a public education system.
History of success
It is a system that produced an educated, literate nation, a nation whose people were able to win great wars, put men on the moon, make incredible advances in medicine and technology.
That the public education system in many cities, Cleveland among them, is not doing the job it did 50 years ago cannot be denied. But there are complex sociological reasons behind those failures. Funneling public tax money into religious education may seem like an answer to those problems, but it isn't.
Ultimately, vouchers could do far more to Balkanize this nation along religious lines than to improve the education that every American child should receive.
Throughout Ohio and right here in the Mahoning Valley, we have seen that public schools can and do work. There are some very good school districts in the Valley.
We also have public school districts that are struggling and whose children are not being properly prepared to take their places in society. We have also seen charter schools, another experiment by the General Assembly, that aren't rising to the level of performance of our weakest public schools.
Clearly something must be done to improve education. But that something isn't the pursuit of a charter school policy that would eventually replace public education with a hodgepodge of taxpayer-supported religious schools.