Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

School Vouchers, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Williams, and Protecting the Faithful: Warnings from the Eighteenth Century and the Seventeenth Century on the Danger of Establishments to Religious Communities

Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

School Vouchers, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Williams, and Protecting the Faithful: Warnings from the Eighteenth Century and the Seventeenth Century on the Danger of Establishments to Religious Communities

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

The State of Utah just dodged a bullet-an alleged silver bullet that was to cure the "problems" of public education. By an overwhelming vote, the people of Utah voted down the proposed school vouchers bill.1 Patrick Byrne, the key supporter of the lawwho spent millions of his own and his family's money on the referendum-complained that the landslide defeat of the bill showed that voters in Utah "don't care enough about their kids."2

But whether the debate in Utah (or elsewhere) over school vouchers is even about quality education-about whether parents "care enough about their kids"-is an open question. Most enthusiasm for school vouchers comes from supporters of parochial schools, religious-based charter schools, or religious-based home schooling. Indeed, it would hardly be otherwise, since about eighty-four percent of all children in private schools in the United States are attending religious schools.3 It is possible that widespread use of vouchers might lead to the creation of non-religious private schools, but this seems unlikely because the creation of a new school is extremely costly and vouchers are unlikely to provide enough money to pay for the creation of a new school. Vouchers might, however, lead to the creation of new religious schools, which would be funded by churches and denominations and then helped by vouchers. Thus, support for vouchers is, in the end, an endorsement of using state money to pay for private (overwhelmingly religious) schools. In Utah, ads in support of the bill "implied that good Mormons should support vouchers."4 Other supporters of the bill argued that passage of the referendum would be a blow against teachers unions, "liberals," and government bureaucracy.5 Those favoring the school voucher bill tried to tie the "opposition to liberal icons such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Senators Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy, and out-of-state unions."6 Indeed, in defeat Byrne claimed the school voucher vote was about "freedom," implying that "freedom" would only come through school vouchers.7 In fact, of course, it was about two other things: the agenda of those who support state aid to religious education and the agenda of those, like Byrne, who see school vouchers as a convenient horse to mount in their charge against political liberalism, unions, and any kind of government spending that does not involve the military or the police.

Ironically, Byrne never considered that his notion of "freedom" would involve supporting mostly religious education with taxpayer dollars, and that the very "freedom" he would create, would, in the end, undermine one of the central bedrock freedoms of American society: freedom of belief and practice, which is based on separation of religion and the state.8 The supporters of the voucher bill never explained how it would promote freedom to take money from a person of one faith, to support the religious institutions of another faith.

There are many public policy, intellectual, and education policy arguments against school vouchers. School vouchers undermine the public schools but never provide enough money to give a true private school option to all parents and children. Indeed, they function as a subsidy for the rich in two ways. First, by giving any funds to the wealthiest in society, as the Utah program would have, the vouchers provide a direct subsidy for private education to those who do not need a subsidy. Subsidies may help those people on the margins, who can use the subsidy to send children to private schools, thereby raising the overall revenue for private schools and lowering the overall costs for all people paying private-school tuition. A subsidy to private education is ultimately undemocratic, and it leads to an increase in separate education within our society, rather than a shared educational experience. Vouchers put the poorest and least-able families at risk because, in the end, vouchers will undermine educational quality in the public schools that those individuals with the fewest resources will still be attending. …

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