Separated by church and state

September 01, 1999|By Tom Teepen

WE'RE A long way from a definitive ruling on whether using tax money to send kids to religious schools is constitutional, but the finding by a federal district court in Ohio that there's probable cause to suspect a church-state violation in Cleveland's program may hint at what's to come.

Supporters of vouchers are reacting as if the very idea of judicial review were novel to the point of abomination. Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute of Justice, which argued for the Cleveland program, called the ruling by Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. "an outrageous abuse of judicial power."

It is, instead, a perfectly ordinary, indeed predictable, finding. It was inevitable that the constitutionality of vouchers would be tested in federal courts, and Judge Oliver's ruling follows one in Maine earlier this year that barred the use of public money to pay tuitions at a Roman Catholic school.

Conservatives, mainly, have rallied to vouchers not only as a cure-all for everything wrong with public schools but as the sole allowable fix. Even a proposed national program to repair dilapidated schools has flopped in Congress partly out of a dug-in ideological dismissal of public education on the right.

Hyped now as an educational nostrum, vouchers were created as a political device to slip a nice little payoff to new Republican constituencies -- first to the blue-collar Democrats, disproportionately Catholic and with kids in parochial schools, who went with Ronald Reagan, then to the Protestant fundamentalists of the religious right, with their growing number of Christian academies.

The notion that competition for students might result in better schools is not without promise, but tellingly, most voucher backers have been indifferent to proposals for open-enrollment competition among public schools or to plans that would limit vouchers to private nonsectarian schools.

President Clinton's endorsement of public-school vouchers has been left on the table untouched for six years.

The voucher movement gets much of its thrust from an unacknowledged animus toward secular education. It is not happenstance that, as Judge Oliver noted, the overwhelming majority of schools benefiting from the Cleveland vouchers are religious.

Vouchers drain funds from public schools, which are then supposed, somehow, to improve themselves. Broadly adopted, they would create a huge new entitlement program and let private schools raise tuitions with the confidence that parents would demand that voucher values keep pace.

Then there's that absolutely basic constitutional issue.

If using tax money to encourage the creation of sectarian school systems is not an unconstitutional "establishment" of religion, little will be left of church-state separation.

Public schools have been bringing Americans together for more than 100 years. Do we really want, instead, to divide ourselves by religion and then fight over the money?

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address:

Pub Date: 9/01/99

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