Vouchers for Religious Schools

By Doyle, Denis P. | The Public Interest, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Vouchers for Religious Schools


Doyle, Denis P., The Public Interest


The American public, if opinion polls are to be believed, overwhelmingly prefers private to public schools. A recent poll in USA Today reports that, among respondents with school-age children, 47 percent would use private schools "if they had the resources." Interest in private schools has a racial component as well; African Americans are much more likely to express a preference for private schools than whites, and, not surprisingly, African Americans report much lower levels of satisfaction with public schools than whites.

The ability to attend private school, of course, is largely a function of family income. For, as the sociologist James Coleman once pointed out, private schools face a significant "tariff barrier"; not only must they charge tuition to generate income but their "competition" - public schools - are so heavily subsidized that they are "free" to consumers. At the same time, almost without exception, public policy forbids the use of public funds to attend private religious schools, which account for 85 percent of private-school enrollment. Yet, if private schools are good enough for the discerning and the well off, why are they not good enough for the poor and dispossessed?

It's no exaggeration to say that the last unserved minorities in America are poor children whose families prefer private religious schools to public schools. Such an educational opportunity is simply not available to the poor except through charity and private beneficence, the one activity the modern welfare state was designed to render unnecessary. Imagine denying Medicare recipients the right to seek medical care in a Jewish, Lutheran, or Catholic hospital because of its religious character, or forbidding a Social Security pensioner from using Social Security benefits to be buried in hallowed ground. Indeed, one wonders what the state interest is in denying children access to private religious schools.

Church and state abroad

Our liberal-democratic neighbors across the Atlantic have certainly not found such an interest. In fact, ours is the only advanced democracy that does not provide public funds for children to attend private schools. While there are limits to comparative analysis, the tool is nevertheless a powerful one, providing insights that would otherwise not be available. In particular, comparative analysis shows us how different nations solve similar problems - with varying degrees of inventiveness. While almost all democracies provide public funds for children to attend religious schools, three countries in particular (Denmark, Holland, and Australia) offer distinctive insights into the practice.

The Danes have provided public funds for non-government schools since the creation of a national system of public education in the early nineteenth century. Because there was a state church, Evangelical Lutheranism was quite naturally taught in government schools. Anything else was unthinkable; just as the King or Queen was head of the Church, so too he or she was head of the state and the school. But the Danes are a tolerant people, and just as they would expect those who attended government schools to participate in religious activities, including devotion and study, they would not impose such obligations on every one.

Thus parents who organize 24 children of school age are guaranteed the right to establish their own school (if they cannot find an existing one that they approve of) at government expense. According to Danish Education, the official publication of the Danish Ministry of Education:

Today, various kinds of "free" or independent schools exist, all of them subsidized up to 85 percent ... the principle behind these large subsidies is that, although Denmark has an efficient education system ... it should be possible for people to choose an alternative kind of education for their children should they wish, whether their reason for this be ideological, political, educational or religious. …

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