Mr. Lanting, a member of South Holland Protestant Reformed Church, is a practicing attorney.
Public Funds and Private Education
Ever since the Bush Administration unveiled its “America 2000” program in the spring of 1991, the national debate over “school choice” has been escalating rapidly. In fact, many are predicting that school choice will soon eclipse abortion as the most controversial political, social, and church/state issue of this decade.
Engendered by growing frustration with the nation’s notoriously inept public school monopoly,-school choice was originally conceived to foster healthy competition between public schools by eliminating residency requirements and permitting parents to choose the best public school for their children. More recently, however, school choice has become identified with Education Secretary Lamont Alexander’s proposal to revive the tuition voucher concept. Distributed to parents, these vouchers would be used at the school of the parents’ choice, including private and parochial schools, thereby potentially funneling billions in tax money to private and parochial schools. These “choice in education” proposals have fostered intense debate over the church/state issues raised whenever government tax monies are channeled into private and parochial institutions.
Impetus From Wisconsin
The choice movement gained some momentum this past spring when the Wisconsin supreme court ruled that Milwaukee’s “Parental Choice Program” passed constitutional scrutiny, even though it allows inner-city children to use state funds to attend private, “non-sectarian” schools. This landmark decision marks the first time a high court has allowed poor families to use state education money to send their children to non-public schools.
Some of the proponents of the Milwaukee program predicted that this court victory will create a nationwide grassroots movement to revolutionize public education in America. Although such predictions may be exaggerated, it is clear that support for the concept of school choice is growing.
In addition, since 1991 over thirty states have introduced choice bills in their legislatures. Although few if any of these bills have become law, choice advocates are increasingly optimistic that many states will soon adopt some kind of voucher legislation. Indeed, state legislation maybe more likely than federal funding, since Congress has frustrated the Bush administration by rejecting two recent modest attempts to add private school voucher plans to pending education bills. Both the House and Senate have as yet resisted the voucher concept in President Bush’s America 200 program.
Nonetheless, the Department of Education has recently announced that it will continue to promote a “full-choice program” and predicted that 1993 will promise to be a good year for the President’s education plan.
The Edison Project
Moreover, in the private sector, the concept of school choice gained considerable credibility early this summer when Benno Schmidt, the President of Yale University, resigned his position to head up the Edison Project. The Edison Project is a for profit business venture which envisions ownership and operation of a nationwide chain of innovative schools jointly owned by media mogul Chris Whittle and Time Warner Corporation. The new company has already attracted investment commitments in excess of $60 million. The Edison Project company anticipates establishing about 100 for-profit grammar schools by 1996 and facilities for more than two million students by the end of the decade. Tuition is estimated to be $5,500 per student, which approximates the national average now spent in public schools. Although Whittle insists his Edison Project will not need federal funding, many suspect that the company anticipates and needs some form of state or federal aid vouchers to survive.
Choice proposals are, however, facing formidable opposition on both the federal and state levels. Many detractors warn that a modest voucher or tax credit (of say $2,000 per student) will only result in greater racial and economic segregation and less choice for the poor. This is because the underclass will continue to be economically excluded from the more attractive suburban schools where tuition costs typically exceed $5,000 annually per student. Unable to pay the “gap” between the voucher and the actual tuition at the more affluent schools, the poor would remain locked in the inner-city schools.
Moreover, the choice voucher proposals face stiff resistance from watchdog groups such as the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who argue that such vouchers which funnel tax monies into private and parochial schools constitute a gross violation of the First Amendment prohibition against governmental establishment of religion – a breach of the traditional “wall of separation” between church and state.
Additional opposition is being raised by the public educational establishment (such as the National Education Association), which argues that the demise of the existing public school system will result in greater inequities for the poor and racial minorities, and engender widespread confusion and chaos in education, at least during the lengthy transition period.
But in addition to the potential inequities and the church/state problems predicted by choice detractors, a more troublesome difficulty is the prediction that acceptance of vouchers will inevitably result in a loss of autonomy by private and parochial schools. A conservative Catholic educator recently noted that Catholic schools should be wary of Bush’s proposal to give vouchers to “lawfully operated” non-public schools. Writing that many schools have already “bartered away their souls for government funds,” this columnist warned that vouchers may be “the gift of the Trojan Horse” for nonpublic schools: “What will happen to the Catholic children of Roman Catholic parentage (large families, little financial resources) when parochial schools may be inundated by a majority of children whose parents have opted for the ‘discipline’ of Catholic schools, but share no similar religious values with the Catholic children in their formative years?”
Phyllis Schafly is also critical of Bush’s “America 2000” program, accusing the Administration of attempting to transform private schools into public institutions. A conservative California organization called Citizens for Excellence in Education (CEE) also recently warned that Bush’s Choice program may well bring nonpublic schools under unwanted government scrutiny. In contrast, CEE boldly called for a voucher system devoid of government control or supervision.
This issue – whether tuition vouchers will inevitably be accompanied by loathsome government oversight over. admissions, curriculum, and certification of parochial and private schools – is the fundamental and threatening unknown for choice proposals. Initial tuition voucher programs may well be accompanied by certain government assurances, but all parental Christian schools should monitor these choice developments very carefully, and zealously guard against a loss of autonomy which historically results from receipt of public funds.