Church-State Debate Erupts in the States: School Voucher Campaign Resurfaces as Legislatures Weigh Dozens of Bills That Would Merge Religion and State

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Church-State Debate Erupts in the States: School Voucher Campaign Resurfaces as Legislatures Weigh Dozens of Bills That Would Merge Religion and State


Boston, Rob, Church & State


When New Jersey's new governor, Christopher J. Christie, unveiled his choice for state education commissioner Jan. 13, advocates of public education and church-state separation could only groan.

The new education head, Bret D. Schundler, is known mainly for his advocacy of voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools. As mayor of Jersey City in the 1990s, Schundler pushed the idea incessantly; he also made vouchers the cornerstone of two failed gubernatorial campaigns in 2001 and 2005.

"We agree on the type of significant reform that needs to happen in our educational system here in New Jersey," Christie said. "I want a strong, reasonable, bold leader who's going to help me implement those policies."

Schundler's appointment signals that Christie, a Republican who advocated state aid to religious and other private schools during the campaign, will move quickly to push some type of voucher plan in the Garden State.

It's unclear what form that will take. During the campaign, Christie touted a full-fledged voucher program as well as a scheme aimed at funneling tax aid to private schools through corporate tax credits.

A few hundred miles to the south in Virginia, public school advocates are bracing for a similar battle.

Virginia's new governor, Robert McDonnell, has appointed Gerard Robinson as the state's new education secretary. Robinson serves as president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-voucher front group run by religious school funding advocate Howard Fuller at Marquette University, a Roman Catholic institution in Milwaukee.

During the campaign, McDonnell (R), a close ally of TV preacher Pat Robertson and graduate of Robertson's Regent University, talked mostly about reforming Virginia's charter school law. But observers say the appointment of a high-profile voucher advocate such as Robinson is a good sign that some type of tussle over more problematic versions of "school choice" will erupt.

One private school aid bill has already been put forward in Virginia. SB 133, introduced by Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), would allocate tax credits to businesses that donate to non-profit groups that provide vouchers - an increasingly popular "neo-voucher" scheme that has surfaced in several states this year.

The rumblings in New Jersey and Virginia indicate that the battle over government aid to religious education, which has been rather dormant for the past few years, may be about to erupt again.

Americans United's Legislative Department is monitoring developments related to religious school tax aid proposals in New Jersey, Virginia and several other states.

Recent activities include:

California: California faces a possible non-legislative voucher push. William E. Oberndorf, chairman of the board of directors for the Alliance for School Choice, is seeking to collect signatures to put a voucher question on the ballot this year.

Oberndorf's proposal would require the state to set up a voucher plan aimed at foster children. The tactics echo a common ploy among voucher boosters these days: target aid toward a population that is perceived sympathetically by the general public. Advocates hope that once vouchers are secured for one class of students, the plan can be expanded to others.

To win a spot on the ballot, Oberndorf and his backers must collect nearly 700,000 valid signatures by June 14. Even if he succeeds, Oberndorf may have a tough time selling the idea to Californians. Golden State voters rejected voucher plans at the ballot box in 1982, 1993 and 2000 -each time by wide margins.

Georgia: Supporters of public education say they expect to see the reintroduction of a voucher bill that failed in the legislature last year. The measure was introduced by Eric Johnson, a member of the state Senate who has since resigned to focus on running for governor. …

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