Sunday, February 22, 2015

Voucher Programs

At the end of last month, from January 25 to 31, National School Choice week was held. National School Choice Week is “a nonpartisan, nonpolitical public awareness effort” which aims to educate families across the country about “effective education options for all children.” Although this sounds harmless, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns that school choice discussions often lead to private school vouchers. The voucher system provides government funding to families whose children do not attend public schooling. For instance, the voucher may assist in covering the cost of tuition for a private school or the expenses needed for homeschooling. “There are 13 states plus the District of Columbia and Douglas County School District in Colorado with school voucher programs.” 

As the ACLU points out, voucher programs are unconstitutional because they infringe upon the separation of church and state and help in the establishment of religion. More often than not, the government funded vouchers are directed towards private religious schools. Many of these religious schools discriminate against applicants “on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, or disability.” Furthermore, “private religious schools are not required to comply with the same academic standards applied to public schools, and many use Christian textbooks” that teach various “inaccurate lessons.” 

Recently, the ACLU filed a “friend-of-the-court brief” in opposition with North Carolina’s voucher program. Private schools which are eligible to participate in the voucher program “must administer state assessments or an equivalent exam to voucher students and report results to the state.” The crux of the ACLU’s argument against the voucher program is that “by spending taxpayer dollars to support private religious schools, the voucher program violates the North Carolina Constitution’s requirement that “[t]he power of taxation shall be exercised in a just and equitable manner, for public purposes only” (ACLU Brief). The North Carolina voucher program is therefore unconstitutional because it uses government funding, taxpayer’s money, to finance parochial schooling which does not align with a public purpose. 

If we recall Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the Court found that the Pennsylvania and Rhode Island statutes that reimbursed private schools for teacher’s salaries, textbooks and other instructional materials to be unconstitutional. Taken for their face value, both the PA and RI statutes seemed to be neutral and enacted for the purpose of furthering secular education. The statutes attempted to avoid direct involvement with religion by placing strict regulations that “prohibit[ed] reimbursement for any course that contain[ed] ‘any subject matter expressing religious teaching, or the morals or forms of worship of any sect” (Alley 84). However, in practice, the statute was directly helping religious schools, more specifically Roman Catholic Schools. During the deliberation of this case, the Court developed a three prong analysis which could be used to determine the constitutionality of a statute; “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” (Alley 85). In conclusion, the Court found that the Pennsylvania and Rhode Island statutes violated the latter of the three tests. 

If we apply the Lemon Test to the question before us, whether or not the North Carolina voucher system is “undermin[ing] the separation of church and state”, I believe that a similar conclusion must be drawn. Similar to the Pennsylvania and Rhode Island statutes from Lemon v. Kurtzman, the North Carolina statute also involves an excessive entanglement with religion and therefore violates the Establishment Clause. The voucher directly is providing financial aid to private religious schools. Taxpayer’s money is being used for religious teachings from religious institutions which discriminate and exclude students based on religion, sexual orientation, or disability. Given these facts, I believe that this is one of the very “evils which the Establishment Clause was intended to afford protection” (Alley 85).


Peter M said...

I disagree with the author and believe that a school voucher program as described here is constitutional. The state has an interest to give freedom the choice of picking the school that is best for their children. By using the logic that these vouchers are unconstitutional, you could make the claim that tax returns are unconstitutional because people could donate the money to a religious organization. I think the principle of private choice applies well to this case as described in Mitchell v. Helms. The government should legislate what citizens choose to do with the aid they are given. People should have the freedom to use school vouchers for any school that they want.

robert bryson said...

I don't believe that tax returns and voucher programs could even be placed in the same ballpark let alone the same sport. Tax Returns are filed, for example using W-2 forms, 1040, 1099, etc. and are based on income, household and other factors. These are typically filed quarterly and are there to assist individuals in the cost of living expense or whatsoever they please. School voucher programs are taken directly from taxpayers money, 'the public wallet', in order to cover private school expenses. Therefore, in the situations in which the parent(s) of a child chooses to direct this money to a private institution which discriminates against students on the basis of religion, sexual preference or even race, the State is directly becoming entangled with funding that enterprise.