Religious School Vouchers: A One-Way Ticket to Northern Ireland's Troubles

Article excerpt

Across the nation, there is impassioned debate these days over whether students should be given vouchers that could be used for parochial and other private schools as well as public ones. Other proposals would accomplish much the same effect by giving religious school patrons tax credits or deductions.

Perhaps these attempts to provide government help to those who opt for non-public schools is fueled by some Americans' dissatisfaction with the public education system. During a recent study trip to Northern Ireland with a group of Protestants and Catholics, though, I gained a new appreciation for some achievements of our public schools that we take for granted.

In Northern Ireland, the government (a.k.a. the taxpayer) funds all schools, even religious ones. The result is that while some institutions are called "public" and others "private," nearly every child, in fact, goes to a sectarian school, either a Catholic one or a Protestant one, and most schools represent a narrow, denominational perspective.

Consequently, many people in Ulster grow up knowing hardly anyone who does not go to their church. This is not only true in the impoverished all-Catholic or all-Protestant enclaves of Belfast, a prominent Roman Catholic journalist told us, but also in her "mixed," middle-class neighborhood of South Belfast. "We simply don't know our neighbors whose children go to other schools," she said.

As a result of their mutual ignorance, Christians in Northern Ireland routinely do things to one another that are unthinkable here. Every summer, members of the Orange Order and the "Apprentice Boys" (another ostensibly Protestant organization) march through the Catholic ghettos of Porladown, Derry and other towns to celebrate the military victory of William of Orange (a Protestant) over James II (a Catholic) over three centuries ago, thumbing their noses at fire descendants of the vanquished. For the past year anti a half, Loyalist militants - who want to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom - picketed Roman Catholic masses ill mostly Protestant North Antrim.

Can you imagine the Grand Army of the Republic marching through Richmond, Va., today to keep alive the animosities of the American Civil War? Or the Ku Klux Klan parading through Watts? Or hundreds of Catholics surrounding Protestant sanctuaries in Boston? One of the many tragedies of Northern Ireland is that many well-meaning Protestants know so little about their neighbors that they have no idea why "marching season" frightens and enrages Catholics. …