Vouchers for Jesus

by KIMBERLY BLAKER

This month, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) filed suit over a recently approved Denver County voucher program in violation of Colorado’s constitution, the first voucher program to pass since the Supreme Court ruling one-year ago that vouchers are constitutional.

Despite the flawed decision of the conservative high court, most Americans consistently oppose school voucher programs, not because we don’t want to improve educational opportunities for all children, but because of ample arguments against them; the ultimate destruction posed by vouchers hardly warrants their implementation. But regardless of their devastating effects, it doesn’t prevent those who would erode the Separation Clause of the First Amendment and undermine the education of public school children from repeated attempts at legislating such programs.

Of particular concern is a reintroduced federally funded voucher proposal for Washington D.C. that would cover students’ tuition up to $11,000 each. Similar legislation for Washington was approved during the Clinton years, but vetoed by the President during his term. With President Bush now in office, the threat of conservatives realizing this vision is real, thus, the need for mainstream Americans to voice their concerns, crucial.

It’s common knowledge that the majority of private schools in the U.S. are parochial. What isn’t readily recognized is that, amazingly enough, many of these religious schools don’t exist to meet children’s academic needs. In stark contrast, a growing proportion has developed to protect children from learning. Fundamentalists are particularly threatened by history and science that’s in conflict with their beliefs. Equally alarming to them is public education’s new emphasis on the development of critical thinking skills.

Unlike the reasons many of us support school of choice, such as for varied learning environments, few religious schools operate with such needs in mind. Many have fewer offerings than public schools for learning disabled or gifted students. And unlike private secular schools established to offer alternative approaches to learning, many conservative religious schools go to the opposite extreme, requiring even more rote learning than public schools.

For Christian fundamentalist schools, religious indoctrination is typically the primary purpose; education is secondary. A substantial part of each day is devoted to recitation and memorization of scriptures and prayers, teaching children how to proselytize, and preparing them for a future of evangelizing.

Likewise, the parents of these children (those enrolling their children in fundamentalist Christian schools), are generally well-aware of the nature of the religious teachings and often send their children solely for such purposes.

In 1947, the Supreme Court ruled in Everson v. Board of Education that,

"Neither [the Federal Government or the state] can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. . . . No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. . . ."

There’s no question that a substantial number of vouchers would fall squarely into those areas that this Supreme Court ruling prohibits.

The fact that private and parochial schools are not obligated to meet the same criteria as public schools for assuring a full and satisfactory education and to assure children’s physical and emotional well-being is an even greater blow to the idea of siphoning tax dollars from public institutions.

Of course, where there’s a will, there’s a way. In recent years, fundamentalists have found ways around the voucher system. Although many charter schools have originated for valid reasons, many more have been underhandedly formed by Christian conservatives to institute their religious teachings through government subsidies.

Not all parents who support vouchers do so for religious purposes. Many are truly seeking better opportunities for their children, especially those in poor districts where private schools do sometimes outperform the public. School choice and better educational opportunities is a serious issue that needs addressing. But vouchers only partially band-aid the problem at the expense of other students while violating our Constitution in so doing.

Because many proponents of vouchers are minorities, the long-term effects could be monumental, even to those most in need of vouchers, as an uncompromised Constitution and Bill of Rights is what ultimately protects their civil rights on a broad range of issues.

KIMBERLY BLAKER is editor and coauthor of The Fundamentals of Extremism: the Christian Right in America. Send your comments to KIMBERLY BLAKER C/O [enter your newspaper here], or to: kblaker@TheWall-OnChurchAndState.com

© 2003, KIMBERLY BLAKER

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