Two Views: School Vouchers

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Commentators Sam Lloyd and Libby Sternberg offer Two Views of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of a voucher program in Cleveland that allows parents to send their children to private, religious schools using public funds. Here’s Sam Lloyd.

(Lloyd) Public education has been a core value of our democracy since its beginnings. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson agreed that only an informed citizen could properly participate in the civic life of a democracy. Adams, pointing to the lack of educational opportunity in the old world, wrote “the education of a nation instead of being confined to a few schools for the instruction of the few must become the national care and expense for the formation of the many”.

Out of this came our public school system. We know, as we struggle with school budgets, that raising the necessary dollars seems more difficult each year. Now comes the Supreme Court’s Cleveland decision, opening the way for taxpayer dollars to follow students from public to private schools, should the states so decide.

Many claim that, in reality, only a trickle of dollars would flow from public to private schools in Vermont. However few, that runs counter to my conviction that not a dollar of tax revenue should leave a public school – however imperfect – to support private school education. Those dollars belong where they began: supporting and improving PUBLIC education, with – ideally – additional investment from the State to support this pillar of our democracy.

I have no quarrel with private education: it fills a need which should be filled. But private money supports it, and private money it should remain. Putting public tax dollars into the private arena simply robs the public schools of the means to address shortcomings. Those dollars must serve – as Adams said – “The national care and expense for the formation of the many”.

(Sternberg) I’m Libby Sternberg.

The Court’s decision corrects an injustice. For years, we as Americans have been able to use publicly-funded vouchers at a variety of religiously -affiliated institutions, but not at elementary and high schools.

We can use vouchers in the form of Medicare and Medicaid payments at Catholic hospitals. We can use vouchers in the form of food stamps at kosher groceries. We can also use vouchers at post-secondary colleges, even seminaries, without violating the constitution.

The justices found that within the context of an otherwise neutral program, publicly funding education at a religious school is not a government endorsement of religion. They wrote:

“No reasonable observer would think that a neutral private choice program carries with it the imprimatur of government endorsement. Nor is there evidence that the program fails to provide genuine opportunities for Cleveland parents to select secular educational options¿”

Those options in the Cleveland case included staying in a public school and using special tutorial aid, or going to a magnet or charter school. In other words, the government was not coercing parents to choose religious schools, and thus was not endorsing religion.

The National Education Association accuses voucher supporters of diverting public energy, attention and resources to private schools.

Not so. Vouchers give attention and resources to poor students who can’t otherwise access the schools that might be best for them.

In one of the opposing legal arguments, opponents described parents as merely “inconsequential conduits” for the money to flow to religious institutions. Three cheers for the Supreme Court for recognizing that parents are not inconsequential at all.

Sam Lloyd is an actor and former legislator; active in community, environmental and education issues. Libby Sternberg is a free-lance writer, former chair of the Rutland County Republican Party, and is active in education issues.

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