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The Bible and Suicide

Hot Topics: School Vouchers

Dateline: November 11, 1998 (updated 3/16/00)

A wave of bills and referenda have lately increased the pressure to force local, state and federal governments to provide financial subsidies to parents who choose to send their children to private or religious schools instead of free public schools. None of this is new - Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman proposed such a plan some forty years ago, but it was received little enthusiasm. In the 1980s, the feasibility of a voucher system was studied in Great Britain, but after heated debate the legislature rejected the idea.

Today, the idea's popularity is spreading across the country, especially among the nation's more conservative elements. Let's take a look at some of the arguments, pro and con.


1. Private schools offer superior education. According to some studies, math and reading proficiency at private schools is significantly higher than at public schools. Our nation's publicly-run schools are in a state of ruin, failing miserably to properly educate the leaders of tomorrow and private schools are the only hope for parents who want their children to receive a decent education.

2. Vouchers help parents afford an otherwise too-expensive education. Presently, only children from wealthy families can afford the benefits of a private education. Publicly funded vouchers would eliminate this unjust disparity and allow for children in low-income homes to get a good education, too.

3. Choice saves tax-payer dollars in the end. Public school education can cost a great deal more on a per-capita basis than private school education. Under a voucher system, the private institutions would be able to achieve superior educational benefits for a lower cost. Billions would be saved annually as ever more children transfer from public to private schools.

4. Vouchers ensure the survival of private schools. Enrollment in private schools declines as the discretionary income of lower- and middle-income families declines. Their inability to send their children to private schools threatens the future of private schools, especially parochial schools in the cities. Vouchers from public funds would allow these institutions to survive.

5. Overcrowding in public schools would lessen. Public school enrollment all over the country, especially in states like California, is increasing dramatically and will only get worse, straining an already desperate situation. Private and parochial schools have room for additional students and, if allowed, could help ease the crisis.

6. Competition will force improvement in public schools. Under a free-market system, the brightest students will go to the best schools, which are presently private schools. In order to stop such an exodus, public schools will have to do a better job at competing with what private schools offer, and that means dramatically improving what they offer. Outmoded teaching methods and bloated beauracracies will have give way, as they inevitably must do in free markets.

7. Vouchers will relieve parents of double-taxation. Every parent who sends their children to a private school is essentially paying a double-tax. The first is for the public schools which they do not use, the second is for the private schools which they do use. It is inherently unfair for families to have to pay twice for a service, especially when they do not use the publicly offered service. Vouchers would rectify this situation by returning money to parents for use at private institutions.

8. Private schools will improve the morals of the nation's youth. Public schools are morally degenerate, failing to provide our nation's youth with proper guidance. This can be directly tied to the elimination of school prayer and Bible reading in the 1960's by atheists and secular humanists. Vouchers will allow poorer families to send their children to religious schools where chidden will be able to enjoy genuine religious freedom. They'll have daily prayers, Bible reading and no immoral or anti-religious education. We won't see any violent shootings or massacres at private religious schools as we have at public schools. Our nation will be vastly improved with the development of a new generation of moral children.

9. Voucher programs which do not include religious schools are unconstitutional. If a voucher program is created, it has to allow for parents to choose to send their children to private religious schools as well as private non-religious schools. Otherwise, the government will be discriminating against religious institutions and religious parents, a clear violation of the Constitution. Religion must be treated equally alongside secular institutions.

10. Voucher programs will not violate the separation of church and state. Voucher programs do not have to force the government to give money to religious schools The government can give parents the money, and they in turn will be free to give the money to either religious or secular educational institutions. No money will be transferred directly from government to churches, thus eliminating separationist complaints.


1. Private school advantage? What advantage? Many studies, like those administered by the Natonal Assessment of Educational Progress, indicate that public schools are generally on equal footing with private schools. Students doing the same coursework perform about equally in both institutions. Studies which show otherwise tend to fail to factor out things like income level, educational level of parents, learning disabilities, etc. When such things are taken into account, we get a dramatically different picture.

2. Why should the public pay to send any children to private schools? Although it would be nice for poor children to attend good private schools if the parents wish, that doesn't mean that it is the government's responsibility to fund it. If private schools wish to have such children attend, they can offer scholarships, as many already do.

3. Vouchers do not really save money. Whatever the cost of private school education, voucher systems typically will force the government to subsidize the cost of such education for students already attending private schools. That would cost the taxpayers billions of extra dollars they do not presently have to pay.

4. Private school survival? If the public wants private schools to survive, they can donate money or authorize the government to grant those institutions some special funds - at no point is it necessary for the government to subsidize the education of specific students there. People who really do value the free market will recognize that the survival of such schools are not automatically the responsibility of the government.

5. Free market competition? The effect of free-market competition upon bloated, non-competitive industries is often praised, but that praise can go too far and become quite irrational. The free-market is not a god that we have to unquestioningly follow - it is a tool which we should use when and where appropriate, and we should not hesitate to question that appropriateness. Just because it works in one area does not automatically mean that it will work elsewhere.

Moreover, the idea of the effectiveness of the free-market in improving an industry is completely dependent upon the existence of real competition. However, there would be no real competition between public and private schools. Public schools must fund the transportation of students, whereas private schools have no such requirement. Public schools must abide by a whole host of governmental regulations on how to treat children, how to maintain buildings, race, religion, disabilities, etc., ad nauseam. Private schools have few such restrictions which they must abide by, especially religious schools. Attempts by the same people who push vouchers to enact bills like the Religious Liberty Protection Act would cause such religious schools to have to abide by almost no restrictions, diminishing real competition even further.

6. Public schools will become dumping grounds for the unwanted. Private schools are free to pick and choose whomever they wish as students, freely discriminating for reasons of race, religion, disability, cost to educate, whatever - they are not answerable to the public, even though some people wish to give them public money. They can refuse admission or expel students for any reason whatsoever. Public schools must, except in extreme cases, accept whomever wishes to apply, including those with expensive physical or learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, contagious diseases, or language deficiencies. Special students requiring extra effort to educate will rarely, if ever, be accepted to most private schools, allowing them to avoid the costs and problems of educating the unusual student. This is one way that voucher advocates can claim that the per capita education costs are lower at private schools than at public schools. Once again, we find an important area where real competition is entirely absent because the playing field isn't even close to level.

7. Public schools would be robbed of critical funding. The funding of voucher schemes is accomplished by skimming money from already poorly financed public education budgets, possibly causing deep cuts in transportation costs, security, classroom improvements, repairs, supplies, and staff. Inner city schools could find themselves in even worse situations than they presently are. There is a great deal of reverse-class envy sweeping the country, with middle- and upper-class people balking at paying to fund social services which are designed to help the poor survive with a bit of dignity. This is really no different, since these people are looking for ways to stop paying to educate poor students while they look for better ways to educate their own. Why should they care what happens to inner-city and minority students? If they aren't interested in helping to feed and house the poor, they certainly aren't going to be interested in educating the poor. A permanent underclass is developing in America, and this will serve to cement that development into fact.

8. Vouches subsidize discrimination. As already mentioned, private schools are free to discriminate at will, refusing or expelling any student for any reason like race or religion. Some students have been expelled because their parents were critical of the school. This is, of course, their right. But why should the government and taxpayers subsidize this discrimination?

9. Poor schools could take advantage of a voucher system. Bizarre religious or political groups, cults, and even profiteers may be allowed to operate schools and receive public funding for doing so. Immune from government oversight, they'll be free to pursue whatever goals they may have, even including child abuse.

10. There is no double-taxation. Parents who use private schools are only taxed once: when they pay taxes for public schools. The fees they pay to private schools are in no sense a tax - they are instead a voluntary payment to a private institution. Calling it a "tax" is nothing less than dishonest. Moreover, just because a person freely chooses to replace or supplement a public service with a private company does not mean that the government should refund any money which would have gone to that unused public service. People who hire private security firms do not receive money taken from police department budgets, and people who install private pools do not receive refunds because they do not use public pools. Public schools, as with public police departments, offer direct and indirect benefits to society as a whole and all individuals, even when those individuals are not immediately using their services. Finally, unless the public decides that the government has no business providing police protection and education, then the government has the responsibility of properly maintaining and funding those services for all citizens - even for those who are not presently using them, just in case they will need to use them tomorrow.

11. Private schools will not "fix" morality. If our children suffer from any moral deficiencies, it is the fault of the parents, not the schools. Inept parents will not find sudden changes in their children just because they've started attending a private school. The problems facing our nation's youth are difficult and complex - it is absurd to try and simplify them by claiming that they are the result of a lack of prayer or Bible reading in public schools, and it is equally absurd to claim that their inclusion in the school day will have any significant impact.

12. Funding religious schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. Religious schools are, quite properly, viewed by both supporters and detractors as ideological and educational extensions of churches. Awarding them public money for their functions essentially taxes all citizens for the religious goals of a few. Even if the money goes from government to parent to school, constitutional problems remain. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled against a voucher program in Louisiana which was designed to thwart public school segregation. In the decision of Poindexter vs. Louisiana, the Court explicitly declared that "The United States Constitution does not permit the State to perform acts indirectly through private persons which it is forbidden to do directly." That, of course, is exactly what voucher schemes like the one in Wisconsin is trying to accomplish. Just as the government cannot subsidize churches by funneling money through sympathetic private citizens, it cannot subsidize church schools by funneling money through those same persons.

Quote of the week:

Education's purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.

Malcom S. Forbes (Quoted from: Peter McWilliams, Ain't Nobody's Business if you Do, p. 734.]

At present, voucher programs of some sort have been proposed in at least 20 states as well as Congress, although only Milwakee, Cleveland and Florida have had working programs allowing parents to use tax-money to send their children to religious schools. The Milwaukee program had been appealed to the Supreme Court after the Wisconsin Supreme Court permitted it 4-2, but the High Court's justices refused without comment to review the case, 8-1. The Florida program has just been declared unconstitutional. This sets no national precedent and the highest courts in other are expected to decide upon other cases. This will certainly embolden voucher supporters to push legislation in more states. People on both sides of the case are, however, disappointed in the refusal because, until the Supreme Court finally renders a decision in a voucher case, the constitutionality of all such programs will be open to question. It would be devastating for the Court not to rule against them until well after many large programs have been instituted across the country.

Some state constitutions explicitly prohibit government aid to religious schools, which would seem to prohibit voucher programs which include religious schools - but one of those states is Wisconsin, and judges there approved of the voucher scheme. So, it is not clear that issues of constitutionality will prevail in the face of religious and partisan fervor. Sadly, Supreme Court decisions have been all over the place in this area. Programs to pay for textbooks in private schools have been upheld, as have funds for transportation. But other programs, like those providing remedial education for children attending private schools, have been struck down.

Who advocates voucher programs? Traditionally, support has come primarily from the Catholic Church, an institution which has long maintained the largest system of private religious education in America. Interestingly, at the same time that they are increasing their demands for state subsidies, they are also increasing their demand that their parochial schools be used as tools for Catholic evangelization. Clearly, then, they are looking to have our government financially sponsor their attempts to spread their faith.

Catholic leaders have since been joined by libertarians and right-wing Protestants. The former think that free-market reforms are the ultimate solution to ineffective schools. The latter are hell-bent on destroying public, secular education in favor of their own brand of religious indoctrination. There is little evidence that either group will have much positive effect on our nation's educational system.

That's where we stand now -but what will the future bring? Tell us about your own ideas on education, educational reform, and school vouchers on our Bulletin Board!


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