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July 2, 2002

Vouchers: Constitutional But Dangerous
by Thomas Washburne, Esq.

On Thursday, June 27, 2002, the United States Supreme Court declared that that the Cleveland, Ohio, practice of giving vouchers to parents of children in failing public schools was constitutional. The vouchers, government money which is used to help pay tuition at public, private, or religious schools, were alleged to have been in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment's prohibition on the government establishing religion. The Supreme Court held that the voucher program did not violate establishment principles, even though the funds could be used in religious schools. Was this the right decision? Yes. But we must remember that not everything that is permissible is necessarily beneficial.

Families who home school their children are understandably frustrated by the way our education system is funded. Home schooling parents pay thousands of dollars in property taxes, the bulk of which supports the education of children; yet they get no return on this money for their own children. Home schools must pay personal education expenses on top of whatever they pay in taxes. With all the news about vouchers, many might be tempted to throw their support behind these programs.

Vouchers are not equivalent to cash. By their very nature, vouchers are susceptible to government control and strings. For instance, what happens if a private school begins accepting vouchers, sees its attendance rise, and enters into long-term debt to build a bigger building? Then, three years down the road the government changes its voucher program to forbid schools that receive voucher money from teaching scientific creationism. Will the school face bankruptcy as a matter of principle? Or will it simply change its manner of teaching? Vouchers have the potential to bring about this sort of disastrous control over private education.

We must also note that while the voucher programs may be constitutional at the federal level, 38 states have provisions in their own constitutions which arguably prohibit state funds from going to schools that are religious. For example, Article XI, Sec. 3, of the New York Constitution provides: "Neither the state nor any subdivision thereof, shall use its property, credit or any public money, or authorize or permit either to be sued, directly or indirectly, in aid or maintenance, other than for examination or inspection, of any school or institution of learning wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination, or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine is taught..." What kind of a voucher will private, religious, or home schools get in New York?

Fortunately, there are better ways to provide relief for families. A tuition or per child tax credits is a far superior way of giving parents more control in education. Tax credits for those who contribute to scholarship organizations that grant school tuition to needy children is another attractive route. Tax credits allow people to keep their own money from the start, rather than receive a check (voucher) from the government.

Our education system desperately needs true choice. It is tragic that so many young people are trapped in public schools that do not educate, respect their parent's religion, or even ensure basic student safety. By opening education to free market principles, parents can more easily reclaim control over their children's schooling. The Supreme Court has opened the door with this decision considered favorable toward choice in education. Now that public opinion too seems more open to educational choice, it is time for home schoolers to be advocates for methods of "school choice" that do not invite more government control.