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Vouchers cannot “rescue” the public schools, nor should they.  But they can rescue children.

 

Religious Freedom and Educational Choice Don’t Conflict

By Christopher J. Armstrong

For reasons that defy understanding, opponents of school voucher programs have resurrected a thoroughly defeated argument — namely, that the use of public funds for tuition at religious schools is unconstitutional.

The National Education Association, the largest and most influential teachers union in the District of Columbia, claims that school vouchers are a “means of circumventing the [c]onstitutional prohibitions against subsidizing religious practice and instruction” in its public campaign to stop a proposed voucher program for our nation’s capital.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution has been interpreted to prohibit governments from enacting laws that have the “purpose” or “effect” of advancing or inhibiting religion.  Many who oppose school vouchers claim that public funds being used to pay tuition at private religious schools would give the impression that government is supporting or even promoting religion.  Yet the same argument would suggest that students couldn’t use Pell Grants to attend the University of Notre Dame or that it is unconstitutional for patients to use Medicare funds at a Catholic hospital.

Moreover, the arguments put forward by the NEA run counter to recent Supreme Court precedent in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which upheld a school voucher plan in Cleveland, Ohio, that has helped to rescue inner-city children from the grips of a failing public school system.

In Zelman, the Supreme Court noted the important difference between government funding religion and government funding choice.  “[O]ur decisions have drawn a consistent distinction between government programs that provide aid directly to religious schools, and programs of true private choice, in which government aid reaches religious schools only as a result of the genuine and independent choices of private individuals,” the Court ruled.

Restating the point, the Court reaffirmed the established rule that “‘[i]f numerous private choices, rather than the single choice of a government, determine the distribution of aid, pursuant to neutral eligibility criteria, then a government cannot, or at least cannot easily, grant special favors that might lead to a religious establishment.’”

Undeterred by their loss in Zelman, large teachers unions and liberal special interest groups continue to rail against the best hope for many of our nations most disadvantaged youth — school voucher programs that give students and parents a choice.

Typical of this viewpoint is Chris Link of the ACLU, who has claimed: “[W]e cannot rescue troubled public schools by providing a way for students to abandon public schools.”

Link misses the point.  Vouchers cannot “rescue” the public schools, nor should they.  But they can rescue children.  They can rescue students from the most violent, the worst performing and the least academically challenging schools in the country.  They can breathe new hope into countless students who are caught in the endless cycle of failure caused by the public monopoly of education in our inner cities.

In short, vouchers don’t establish religion, they establish a choice.


Christopher J. Armstrong is a law student at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law and is interning at the Center for Individual Freedom this summer.


[Posted August 1, 2003]

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