FIRST-PERSON: Vouchers & Constitution share common ground; both give hope
McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)--The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday, February 20, concerning school choice in a voucher case involving students in Cleveland, Ohio. At the center of the debate is the constitutionality of a program that offers low-income parents an alternative to the city's struggling public schools. Supporters of the Cleveland program view it as a godsend. Opponents feel the idea originated in a much warmer environment.
Why is there so much vehement opposition to school voucher programs? Why is it so inherently evil to allow parents to have a portion of hard-earned tax money to spend on their children's education as they choose? After all, isn't public education about what is best for the kids?
Opponents of school vouchers are driven by fear. They are sincerely afraid that if vouchers are universally embraced there will be a mass exodus of students from public schools. Following the students out the door will be precious federal dollars. Thus, they believe if vouchers are allowed public education as we know it will not survive and the future of America is doomed. Chicken Little could not imagine a more frightening scenario.
Voucher opponents realize that their anxiety over money is not an argument that will sway legislators. So, pray tell how can they stop the dreaded vouchers? Only one way: they must be found unconstitutional. And of course the easiest way to thwart something in the public schools these days is to somehow link that which you oppose with religion. So, since most parents in Cleveland use their vouchers to send their children to private religious schools it must surely be a violation of the First Amendment. That is exactly the argument that was made before the Supreme Court this week.
The First Amendment begins "Congress shall make no law respecting an Establishment of religion..." Someone, anyone, please tell me how a voucher given to a parent, to be used at his or her discretion, constitutes the establishment of a particular religion? The parent can choose to use the voucher at a Christian school, a Muslin school, a Buddhist school, a Hindu school, or even a school with no religious affiliation. There is no establishment of a specific religion or even an establishment of religion at all.
Fear is causing the opponents of vouchers to grasp at a constitutional straw. I believe their anxiety is very unfounded. Even if the Supreme Court comes down on the side of vouchers, there will not be a giant sucking sound of student's leaving the public schools.
The hope that vouchers will create increased competition for public schools and thus force government education to improve will probably not happen either. I am just cynical enough to believe that even if the Supreme Court declares vouchers to be constitutional, little in public education will change.
Sadly, many will not be able to benefit from a voucher program. In many rural areas students simply will not have a choice. There will be no private school alternatives available. Another reason is that in many cases, the amount of the voucher will not cover the entire cost of tuition. There will be too many parents that will be unwilling to pony up the extra dollars needed to send their kids to a private school.
However, one of the main reasons public schools will retain the majority of their students is the siren song of the status quo. It is simply easier to remain in a situation that is comfortable and what the majority is doing. Many kids will not want to leave their friends and familiar surroundings and parents won't want to rock the boat. To many, public education will remain an adequate alternative.
I don't believe vouchers will bring about a mass exodus from public schools or produce a radical reformation in government-financed education. However, they can bring hope to those who desire a better education, and perhaps a better future, for their children. I pray the argument of hope rather than the argument of fear will sway the Supreme Court in its decision concerning vouchers.
Boggs, whose column appears in Baptist Press each week, is pastor of Valley Baptist Church, McMinnville, Ore.