(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Governmentally funded school voucher programs have the potential to negatively affect every community that relies on public schools to educate its children. Allowing a parent to use a voucher to pay for their child's private school education not only diverts much-needed funds from public schools but also brings up the crucial issue of maintaining the separation of church and state. Using governmental funds to support any sort of religious education or educational institution violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which states that “"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
In contrast to what some proponents of voucher programs assert, vouchers are not an effective way to increase school accountability or improve students' academic performance. Recent experiments with voucher programs (specifically in Washington D.C.) have failed to produce any significant improvement in student achievement. School vouchers are only useful, then, in one manner: they provide a dangerous loophole through which religious institutions may receive governmental funding.
Multiple United States Supreme Court cases have been precedent-setting regarding the interpretation and the implementation of the Establishment Clause. One of the most relevant to the voucher debate is 1947's Everson v. Board of Education, regarding the legality and the constitutionality of a New Jersey law that permitted local school boards to reimburse private (almost entirely religious) schools the cost of transportation for students. Although The Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the state's practices were not unconstitutional, this case also offered an opportunity for The Court to set forth a clear opinion on the Establishment Clause. One part of this opinion is directly relevant to the issue of school vouchers and sets clear legal precedent:
No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.
Another precedent-setting case regarding the issue of school vouchers is 1971's Lemon v. Kurtzman, in which the Court ruled that the government is not permitted to “excessively entangle” with religion. This case overturned a Pennsylvania education act, which, at that time, permitted the state Superintendent of Public Instruction to reimburse private, primarily Catholic, schools for teacher salaries and various educational materials. The Court overturned the act, ruling that it was in violation of the Establishment Clause.
The most important precedent created by this ruling was the “Lemon test," which established requirements for cases dealing with potential violations of the separation of church and state. If any one of the three requirements is violated, the governmental action in question is in violation of the Establishment Clause. These requirements are, as laid out by then Chief Justice Burger in the Court's opinion on this case:
First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion...finally, the statute must not foster "an excessive government entanglement with religion.
However, as more recent judicial and legislative actions have shown, these Court opinions and precedents have not stopped the creation of and the implementation of school voucher programs, most of which have failed to produce the promised increase in educational quality. One voucher program that is currently in the media spotlight is Washington D.C.'s Opportunity Scholarship pilot program. This program was established by The D.C. School Choice Incentive Act of 2003, which was passed by the then-Republican dominated Congress in January 2004. It is the first federally-funded voucher program and provides vouchers of up to $7,500 to low-income D.C. residents. The program was set to expire at the end of the 2008/2009 school year, but President Obama has permitted it to temporarily continue, albeit in a modified form. Children who are currently receiving voucher assistance will have their education funded until they graduate from high school, but no new students will be admitted to the voucher program.
The Obama Administration's decision to discontinue the program was based, at least in part, on the results of a recent study done by the United States Department of Education. The D.C. School Choice Incentive Act required the Department of Education to evaluate the success of the program based on student achievement and on whether or not parents and students felt satisfied with their schools. The study's most recent report, published in March of 2009, is "The Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After Three Years". From it (OSP = D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program):
The evaluation found that the OSP improved reading, but not math, achievement overall and for 5 of 10 subgroups of students examined. The group designated as the highest priority by Congress — students applying from "schools in need of improvement" (SINI) — did not experience achievement impacts. Students offered scholarships did not report being more satisfied or feeling safer than those who were not offered scholarships, however the OSP did have a positive impact on parent satisfaction and perceptions of school safety. This same pattern of findings holds when the analysis is conducted to determine the impact of using a scholarship rather than being offered a scholarship.
Every citizen should be concerned about the poor quality of our underfunded public schools and effective government action is direly needed. But vouchers are not the solution. As shown in this Department of Education study, voucher programs do not cause significant improvement in students' academic performance and achievement. This lack of demonstrated success indicates that many of the current proponents of voucher programs are almost certainly solely motivated by a desire for their religious institution of choice to indirectly receive governmental funding. This is evidenced in the Executive Summary of this study's findings (.pdf file):
Although 56 percent of all participating schools were faith-based (39 percent were part of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington), 82 percent of the treatment group attended a faith-based school, with 59 percent of them attending the 22 participating Catholic parochial schools.
This indicates that religious institutions, specifically Catholic ones in this case, are receiving significant amounts of federal funding from this program. This is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause.
In July of 2009, Bipartisan Senators introduced support for The Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, which, if passed, would give the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program a five-year extension.
Results of most current research into the effectiveness of voucher programs show that vouchers do not significantly improve students' academic performance. Instead, what these programs are succeeding at is diverting much-needed governmental educational funds to private religious institutions. This does great harm to all public school students. Even more dangerous, though, are the current effects and potential future consequences of permitting voucher programs to violate the Establishment Clause.
Allowing voucher programs to continue will do nothing but harm our already underfunded public schools and force all taxpayers to fund religion and religious institutions. Neither outcome is acceptable and both do a great disservice to both the constitution and to all American citizens.