One of the great American ideals is that everyone has an equal chance to succeed in life. A cornerstone of this ideal is our public education system. American public schools are meant to ensure that every child — regardless of race, religion, or background — has access to a good education. At their best, our public schools establish a common foundation upon which an informed democratic citizenry can be built.
It’s no secret, though, that our public schools are in trouble and not always living up to these ideals. In communities across the country, a growing and influential group of private school advocates has been pushing school vouchers as a cure-all for the deficiencies of our public education system. But when you consider that vouchers undermine the separation of church and state, have done little to improve student performance, and divert desperately needed funding from public schools, they begin to look a lot less like an antidote and more like snake oil.
The controversy surrounding government funding of religious education is not new. James Madison, the primary architect of the First Amendment, opposed efforts in Virginia in 1785 to compel citizens to support “Teachers of the Christian Religion.” Madison believed that taxing the public to support private religious instruction was an unjustifiable and coercive interference with liberty of conscience. He wrote: “Who does not see . . . [t]hat the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”
Thomas Jefferson likewise insisted that “compel[ling] a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.” Jefferson also believed that public financing of religion would ultimately corrupt and weaken it and that a wall of separation between church and state was essential to protecting the integrity of every faith tradition.
Many states have recognized and enshrined these tenets in their laws and constitutions, providing even greater protection for the separation of church and state. Thus, while the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld at least one type of voucher program under federal law, school vouchers often run afoul of state constitutional prohibitions.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been fighting to preserve these religious freedom principles by challenging voucher programs across the country. Most recently, we helped parents, clergy, and taxpayers in Douglas County, Colo., stop a program that diverted taxpayer money to pay students’ tuition at primarily religious, private schools.
The school district claimed that the voucher program would increase families’ educational choices, but almost all of the approved private schools were religious and aimed to indoctrinate students. Indeed, for high school students who were not gifted or disabled, their only choice, if they wished to receive a voucher, was to attend a religious school. Most of these schools practiced religious discrimination in enrollment and hiring, and some also discriminated on grounds of sexual orientation and disability.
This is not to say that parents don’t have the right to provide their children with a religious education. The principles of religious liberty protect the rights of those who wish to observe their faith as they see fit. What these legal precepts should not allow, however, is for a religious education to be provided at taxpayer expense.
The eagerness of some to pursue vouchers, in spite of the serious harm they cause to religious freedom, is especially troubling given that vouchers are not the panacea their proponents claim. Studies of voucher programs in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Milwaukee, and other areas have shown that vouchers do not have a strong effect on students’ academic achievement. The negligible academic gain hardly seems worth the effort.
Public education funds should be dedicated to improving our public schools. Every dollar that goes to a private institution could be spent instead on increasing training for teachers, providing schools with computers and other resources to enhance education, or funding school lunch programs to give low-income children an incentive to attend school.
Ultimately, quick fixes like voucher programs do nothing to solve our education crisis and will only exacerbate the problems of struggling public schools. Vouchers are simply not worth sacrificing our national commitment to religious liberty and equal opportunity for all.