Mr. Lanting, a member of South Holland Protestant Reformed Church, is a practicing attorney.

It’s time parents were free to choose the schools that their children attend. This approach will create the competitive climate that stimulates excellence in our private and parochial schools as well. 

President Bush, April, 1991 

The Bush Administration is sparing no expense to embrace a far-reaching definition of choice – including aid to parochial schools, if that will pass the hurdle of the 1st Amendment. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander has called government support of parochial school students “as American as apple pie.” Alexander hopes eventually to erode the ironclad distinction between public and private education. 

Time, Sept. 16, 1991

Collapse of Public Education

For almost a decade now, the collapse of our nation’s public school system seemed inevitable. Each fall, attempting to stem the tide of sharply rising deficits, teachers strikes, student violence, and high school illiteracy, federal and state governments. continued frantically to pour billions of dollars into the “black hole” of public education. The results have been a grim disappointment. The nation’s public school systems are: now on the verge of financial and educational bankruptcy.

In the past decade several intensive studies of the public schools (e.g., A Nation at Risk) have conclusively demonstrated that the system is woefully inadequate, perhaps even a complete failure, in educating its children.

Although the state public school system has often been criticized in the past for its shortcomings, the fundamental concept of “state” education has escaped widespread scrutiny. More recently, however, the very notion of a “state” school system is under attack – why should the government own and operate our nation’s schools?

This past April the Bush Administration launched an unprecedented assault against the “monopoly” of public schools. And what President Bush and his Education Secretary Alexander are now suggesting could eventually be a total dismemberment of the public educational system as we know it today. Armed with a recent study from the Brookings Institution (Politics, -Markers, and America’s Schools by John Chubb and Terry Moe), the Bush Administration is proposing a new “remedy” for the ills of the public school system. And this radical option has been cleverly given a politically correct label: “parental choice.”

The Radical Alternative – Parental Choice

The proponents of Choice are suggesting that “free-market” principles of competition should be introduced into the educational arena to challenge the stagnant and unproductive monopoly public schools have too long enjoyed. To do this, Choice adherents propose that government should in some way subsidize the tuition of all students, who would then have the choice as to which school they would attend. These tuition “vouchers” (as they were first called by the free market economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s), would presumably be used by students to enroll anywhere, including all private and parochial schools.

The contention is that such universal “choice” of schools would force public schools to be competitive or face extinction when students abandon an inferior state school for a superior learning alternative elsewhere.

Although proposals for tuition vouchers have been around for several decades now (see, e.g., Society, State & Schools by McCarthy, et. al.), the concept has gained political viability recently when minorities began advocating Choice as an escape from inner-city schools. A pilot school $2,500 voucher program involving eight private, non-sectarian schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (ironically conceived by Polly Williams, a black separatist state representative from Milwaukee) has gained nationwide attention and approval. Although an innovative $2,500 tuition tax credit was recently defeated in an Oregon referendum, Choice in one form or another is rapidly becoming a real political possibility in many states and perhaps nationally, if Congress adopts Bush’s “America 2000” educational program.

Constitutional and Other Problems

Choice is not without its detractors, however. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA), and Americans United for Separation of Church and State bitterly oppose the plan, arguing that the demise of the traditional public school system will cause a plethora of other problems, including renewed segregation, exclusion of difficult and handicapped children, and unprecedented chaos during any transition period.

Another formidable hurdle for a “free market” in education is the 1st Amendment prohibition of governmental “establishment of religion.” The Supreme Court has historically struck down any direct governmental aid to “sectarian” schools as violative of the anti-establishment clause which mandates that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . .”

But the Bush Administration and some constitutional scholars are now arguing that such tuition vouchers will vault the “wall of separation” between church and state because such vouchers or tax credits would merely constitute permissible “indirect” aid to sectarian schools and primarily serve the legitimate secular purpose of education.

Vouchers and Christian Schools

Although the Christian school movement may initially experience some euphoria over such a promising, financial windfall of tuition grants or tax credits, it would seem prudent to be very cautious and realistic about these radical developments in the past few months. Governmental sponsorship and financial aid have invariably been accompanied by the twin monster head of governmental control. It seems inevitable that if and when Congress and the states adopt these proposed tuition voucher or tax credit schemes, there will be the usual accompanying conditions and restrictions upon the use and acceptance of such governmental aid. Indeed, it is not unlikely that the schools receiving such aid will be forced to comply with current governmental regulations regarding specific curriculum content, affirmative action and minority quotas, sexual discrimination, corporal punishment, teacher certification, and other such criteria as a prerequisite for acceptance of government funds.

Moreover, it would appear that the proponents of Choice are superficially ignoring the fundamental problem with state schools. The cause of the meltdown in public education is not the lack of parental choice of schools, but rather the destruction of the traditional family structure. Malnourished and psychologically troubled children from dysfunctional homes with a single, working parent or no parents at all are ill-equipped to learn and mature in any school. Choice may be treating only the symptom and not the disease.

But our parental, Christian day school movement should nonetheless closely follow with great interest this current debate about Choice in education. And although the outcome may be some form of welcome financial relief for Christian school parents (who, because of local real estate taxes, are now unfairly paying “twice” for education), we should be very cautious and wary about relinquishing any control over or supervision of our schools to the federal or state government arguably earning that prerogative by virtue of direct or indirect financial aid.