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Voucher Research Paper

            Compared to charter schools, school vouchers are a relatively minor form of school choice usage in the United States due to opposition by supporters of public education and mixed support among religious leaders. While over 1.5 million students attend charter schools, voucher programs account for upwards of 150,000 students (Stover, 2009, p. 19). However, a significant amount of students are on tuition tax credits, which give parents a tax reduction for private school expenses, but are not considered vouchers (Cook, 2004, p. 3). Even though tuition tax credit programs existed in six states as of January 2004 (Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania), the only “major” statewide voucher program as of January 2004, Florida’s A+ Opportunity Scholarships Program was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 (Cook, 2004, p. 3; Neily, 2006, p. 412). The Florida Supreme Court struck down the Florida Opportunity Scholarships program as violating the Florida Constitution requirement that “[a]dequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools” in a decision that was criticized by a legal council to families who used Florida Opportunity Scholarships as “educational policymaking” for “ignoring the presumption of constitutionality”, “disregarding the fact record”, and “rejecting practice and precedent” (Neily, 2006, pp. 412, 413, 415, 418). Colorado had plans to also begin a statewide voucher program in 2004, but it was struck down before beginning as violating the “local control” provision of the Colorado Constitution (Cook, 2004, p. 1; Institute for Justice, 2007, Decision(s), para. 1). Despite this, the legality of voucher programs has been affirmed on the national stage with Cleveland’s voucher program, the first to include religious schools, being found not to violate the federal Establishment Clause (Cook, 2004, pp. 1, 3; Neily, 2006, pp. 405, 409). This may be a reason for the increase of voucher students from at most 46,950 in January of 2004 to over 150,000 students in November of 2009 (Cook, 2004, p. 5; Stover, 2009, p. 19).

            Voucher programs have provoked strong political opposition from supporters of public education ever since the “…first serious proposals emerged during the Reagan administration” (Stover, 2009, p. 20). On June 22, 1999, the day after the bill was signed that included Florida’s Opportunity Scholarship program, a group including the ACLU, NAACP, and state and national teachers unions filed a lawsuit alleging the voucher program violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution and three sections of the Florida Constitution (including the section it was eventually found in violation of by the Florida Supreme Court) (Neily, 2006, pp. 407-408, 412). In Colorado, the lawsuit was by The Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the People for the American Way Foundation, various civil liberties groups, the state Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), parents, and religious groups (Cook, 2004, p. 4-5). On the other side, voucher programs, most of which have targeted low-income students in failing schools, have supporters that include Republican legislators, some Democratic legislators, and some traditionally Democratic African-Americans (p. 5). In an example of the limited Democratic support for vouchers, in 2004, U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein joined with then mayor Anthony Williams to support a Washington D.C. voucher program, the only remaining part of former President Bush’s multicity school choice initiative, that went on to pass the Senate, but was essentially eliminated by Congress in 2009 after President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan refused to continue funding the program, which now will end after the last current member of the program graduates (Cook, 2004, p. 4; Holmes, 2009, p. 27; Stover, 2009, p. 20). In the case of the Colorado lawsuit, the supporters of the voucher program were, along with the state, the Institute for Justice and the Coalition for Latino Children in Education (Cook, 2004, p. 5).

            Voucher proponents have argued for voucher programs based on choice and the importance of students receiving a good education (p. 5). Voucher opponents have argued against voucher programs based on fraud, lack of oversight, diversion of funds from public schools, and the importance of distinguishing the public sector from the private sector (Cook, 2004, pp. 3-5). Voucher opponents point to Florida’s program, where there were “…repeated reports of financial corruption, lack of state oversight, and lax or nonexistent academic standards” (p. 3). One case is especially disconcerting: “…the Department of Education provided tax credits to a Muslim school in Tampa that has been linked to terrorist activity” (p. 3). In response, before the program was shut down, lawmakers considered rules aimed at auditing and reporting test scores for former public school students enrolled in the program (p. 3). The Colorado program, on the other hand, included a requirement that students participate in the state testing program (p. 4). As with voucher programs in general, Colorado’s blocked program did not escape from being criticized for diverting funds (p. 3). In response to this criticism, the legislator that authored the Colorado voucher bill, Rep. Nancy Spence, pointed out that “…parents would not receive the entire per-pupil allocation,” since “…25 percent of the K-8 allocation – 15 percent in high school – would stay with the local district” (pp. 1, 4). She also pointed out that the program had “…a 6 percent enrollment cap per district – about 3,300 students would be eligible in the 2004-05 school year” (p. 4).

            As the allegations that voucher programs violate the Establishment Clause show, the separation of church and states is also part of the debate about vouchers; it is the part that results in mixed feelings and division among religious leaders. Soon after Florida passed its voucher program, Dino Pedrone, then pastor of New Testament Baptist Church in Miami, Florida, which operated two Christian Schools with a then combined enrollment of 1,750 students, stated, “‘Vouchers are a marvelous idea…our concern is whether they will come with strings attached’” (Macharg, 1999, para. 2). Ken Wackes, then headmaster of Westminister Academy in South Florida, refused to become part of the program, because “...the school would no longer be allowed to accept only students whose parents are born-again Christians, nor could Bible class or chapel attendance be mandatory” (MacHarg, 1999, para. 5). In Colorado, Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman, president of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, joined the lawsuit individually and with his organization against the state voucher program:

‘By giving voucher money to religious organizations, you are requiring Coloradoans to support religion, and in some cases a specific religion, depending on the school the child attends…the constitution of this state is explicit in prohibiting that, and I am incredulous that our governor does not understand the document he is sworn to uphold…have any 12-year-old read the state constitution, and he or she would understand that this is absolutely prohibited. It’s just as plain as it can be: You don’t use public money to fund private schools. That’s it. End of discussion.’ (Cook, 2004, pp. 4-5)

Cynthia Cearly, a pastor in one of Denver’s most affluent neighborhoods was also part of the lawsuit against the state voucher program (p. 1). Cearly stated after a Sunday morning sermon, “‘Any time you give power or authority to a sectarian group of the government, it’s very risky…the whole separation of church and state is there for a reason. It’s not appropriate, it’s unconstitutional, and it eats away at the foundation of public education.’” (p. 4). On the other hand, Tamarah Quansah, a pastor who operated a small church school in one of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods and who supported the voucher program, had her school approved to accept vouchers under the state program. She states, “People get tired of hearing me say this, but this is about the kids…we may not agree about how to go about it, but this is not about competing for students. It’s all about helping kids succeed” (p. 6).

            I will use this research to help me navigate the tricky balance between allowing the free exercise of religion and establishing a religion. Since the strictness of the law varies from state to state (and the courts for that matter), I need to be aware of state law as well. Though it is clear that preaching to students is strictly prohibited, there are trickier issues where the fine line is closer. A student may want to present the young-earth Creationist viewpoint on how a certain scientific event occurred. The law seems to be on his or her side that he or she can do that as a free exercise of religion, but I may have to present the other side to avoid the appearance of giving preference to a certain belief system. If I do not feel I can do that or if I do not feel comfortable doing that, I have to avoid giving the student’s the chance to create that possibility.

 

References

Cook, G. (2004). Vouchers choice & controversy. American School Board Journal, 191(1), 1-6.

Retrieved December 7, 2009, from the Academic Search Premier database.

Holmes C. S. (2009). From private to public. American School Board Journal, 196(11), 18-21.

Institute for Justice. (2007). Retrieved December 8, 2009, from

http://www.ij.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1172&Itemid=165

MacHarg, K. D. (1999). Voucher plan draws mixed reviews. Christianity Today, 43(8), 10.

Neily, C. (2006). The Florida Supreme Court vs. school choice: a “uniformly” horrid decision.

Texas Review of Law & Politics, 10(2), 401-426.

Stover, D. (2009). The choice evolution. American School Board Journal, 196(11), 18-21.

 

©2009 Jorge Eduardo Fernandez