by Andrew Walsh
Tracking the school voucher movement has become dauntingly complex.
Last year alone, proposals to use government vouchers to support private education were
entertained in at least 21 state legislatures, and there were high-profile referendums in
Michigan and California, major federal appeals court decisions in Ohio and Florida, and a
significant U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
And although vouchers were overwhelmingly rejected in the
state referendums and rebuffed in the federal appeals court decisions, the push continues.
Time noted on December 25 that 2000 closed with "a rough few weeks for
supporters of school vouchers," but said that "the unusual pro-voucher coalition
of inner-city parents, Catholic clerics and deep-pocketed entrepreneurs vows to fight
on." Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. Supreme Court may too be moving toward
permitting vouchers, even for openly religious private schools.
Among the most interesting aspects of the voucher wars have
been the salience of debate over church/state issues and the strikingly variable role of
In Ohio, the Roman Catholic Church and its parochial schools
have been at the center of all phases of the development and implementation of
Clevelands controversial voucher program. In Michigan, both the Catholic church and
a group of black Protestant ministers played a large part in the referendum campaign. But
in California and Florida, religious players and controversy over religion were
conspicuous by their absence.
In Ohio, where the school voucher story has been unfolding
since 1995, the major event of the year was the 6th Circuit Court of
Appeals decision on December 11 to uphold a 1999 federal district court ruling that
Clevelands voucher plan is unconstitutional. "To approve of this program would
approve the actual diversion of government aid to aid religious institutions in
endorsement of religious education, something in tension with the precedents
of the Supreme Court," Appeals Court Judges Eric Clay and Eugene Siler ruled in their
The judges thus threw out a program that gives 3,900 students
from low-income families up to $2,250 per year to attend the private school of their
choice. The Columbus Dispatchs Catherine Candisky noted in her story on the
decision that Catholic parochial schools were receiving 82 percent of the voucher support
and educating 96 percent of the students in the program.
Coverage of the voucher debate in Ohio has been heavy, with a
long string of strong pieces in papers such as the Dispatch, the Cleveland Plain
Dealer, and the Toledo Blade. But no news outlet in the nation has given closer
scrutiny than the Akron Beacon Journal, which has produced a large amount of
investigative journalism on the school choice movement.
Beacon Journal reporters Doug Oplinger and Dennis J.
Willard capped several years of investigation with a four-part series published in
December 1999. Among other things, the series delved deep into the states archives
to document the close collaboration of then-Gov. George Voinovich and the states
Catholic bishops to secure additional support for Catholic schools, including the
Cleveland voucher plan.
The Cleveland plan was touted as a way to help poor students
stuck in Clevelands failing schools, the Beacon Journal reported. "After
three years of schooling, however, the voucher program has instead become a subsidy to the
Roman Catholic Church, and there are serious questions as to whether Cleveland school
children have benefited," the reported argued on Dec. 14, 1999.
"By the end of the last school year, Clevelands
Catholic schools were educating fewer children than before the arrival of the voucher
program, but receiving an additional $3.3 million in state tax money, according to data
from the Ohio Department of Education," the newspaper reported. "In fact, rather
than bring about a shift in children from public to private schools, the voucher program
merely slowed an exodus from Clevelands Catholic schools to the citys public
Much of the medias attention last year went to charting
the campaigns for voucher programs in California and Michigan, often focusing on the mixed
pro-voucher camps. Animated by the argument that public schools are "failing," New
York Times education columnist Richard Rothstein observed in the Jan. 1 issue of the American
Prospect that the voucher movement "joined a number of disparate forces in a
temporary pact of convenience: those who sincerely believe that competition will improve
education for the disadvantaged, along with free-marketeers and antistaters who want to
destroy public schools near monopoly on education, upper-middle class tuition payers
who think of inner-city vouchers as the opening wedge in a campaign that will ultimately
subsidize all private schools, and religious institutions struggling to maintain sectarian
schools in a harsh economic climate for such endeavors."
In their coverage of the fall campaigns, journalists tended
to be most interested in the roles played by corporate executives in the school choice
movement. The particular star was Timothy Draper, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist
who sunk millions into the campaign for Proposition 38, the sweeping California measure
that would have provided an entitlement for each of the states 6.6 million school
children to a tax-funded voucher worth $4,000.
Californias voucher campaign was also strikingly
different from those in Ohio and Michigan because of the very low profile of religious
groupseven though Catholic schools educate almost 60 percent of Californias
private school enrollees.
The states Catholic bishops, in line with Catholic
social teaching, objected to a general voucher program, rather than one focused on the
poor. When Catholic positions were mentioned at all, they tended to appear well down in
stories like Martha Groves Los Angeles Times October 21 piece, which noted
that the California Catholic Conference had issued a "carefully worded
commentary" in September that "raised concerns about the equality of educational
opportunities for poor youngsters."
When Catholic officials were quoted throughout the California
campaign, much of the force of their message was that the Catholic school system was not
likely to expand much whether or not vouchers passed, because of the prohibitive cost of
school construction. Black Protestant ministers interested in vouchers got some attention,
but on the whole the California campaign focused on the costs and constitutionality of a
general voucher program, and not on church-state issues.
The same cant be said of Michigan, where the Catholic
Church and some African-American Protestant leaders were deeply and visibly involved in
Unlike California, the Michigan proposal (more in keeping
with Catholic social teaching) provided voucher benefits only to poor families and only in
districts that fail to graduate more than two-thirds of their students who enter high
school. Cardinal Adam Maida, the Catholic archbishop of Detroit, mounted the barricades
and confronted teachers unions directly and frequently during the campaign. The
proposal transcended partisan politics, he told Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki of the Detroit
Free Press on October 18. "I dont think this is Democrat or Republican. I
dont say union or non-unionI say whats good for kids."
The Catholics bishops of Michigan donated more than $1.5
million to the voucher campaign, and sent out a series of three letters to more than
580,000 Catholic households urging the recipients to vote yes on what was called Proposal
1. In addition, the church issued a series of sermon outlines and asked priests to preach
on the voucher initiative each week at mass for six weeks before the election. The church
also organized a telephone network of Catholic pro-voucher advocates.
The Free Press reported that the bishops first
letter argued that "expanding educational choice is not an option; it is a
requirement of social justice." The bishops then asserted that "tax supported
school choice does not violate the separation of church and state because the voucher is
given to parents and not to an organized religion. Tax support would not necessarily lead
to state interference in the curriculum. Nor would public tax support for one particular
As in California, Proposal 1 went down to defeat by a 2-1
margin. (So much for the power of the Church, at least in this matter.) But Maida
wouldnt let up. He immediately challenged "the measures opponents to come
up with their own solution for improving education," Alexa Capelato reported in the Free
Press on November 21. "The children who are most in need have been let
down," Maida said. "I believe there can be another proposal, maybe structured
Capelato then quoted the cardinals critique of
teachers unions and school boards, which campaigned strenuously against vouchers,
saying they put their own jobs above the welfare of impoverished students. "I believe
people voted to protect their own interests," Maida said. "Lets look at
the children. We can always find a job."
Some of the best pre-referendum coverage focused on
Wisconsin, where Milwaukee operates a 10-year-old voucher program that is the largest in
the country and which received the support of a 1998 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling.
In the October 9 Los Angeles Times Jill Leovy looked
at how the Milwaukee program was actually working, interviewing a range of administrators
from both the public schools and the private and parochial schools--including the director
of an Afrocentric academy--told Lepore about the difficulties of serving large
concentrations of very poor students.
Barbara Lee, principal of St. Rose Urban Academy, said
two-thirds of her teaching staff quit the first year her school accepted voucher students.
"What no one seems to know, in public or private schools, is a simple recipe for
educating concentrated populations of poor children," Leovy wrote. "Before
vouchers, Milwaukees Catholic schools had taken poor students on scholarship. Even
so, We really served the big middle. We had pretty high-performing kids, said
Donna Schmidt, principal of Prince of Peace School in Milwaukee. Now, because of the
new dynamics in the classroom, teachers wont do this for $13,000 a year, she
added. There is a call to ministry, but there is also a call to wellness to
So far, while there has been a large volume of coverage of
the importance of parochial schools in the voucher story, there has been very little
careful analysis of the overall role of the Catholic church. Everyone agrees that if
voucher programs get the green light, most of the options for poor urban children will be
provided by the nations Catholic school systemsthe only significant group of
private schools that function within the price range of the voucher programs so far
broached. And, as the Beacon Journal and others have suggested, there is immense
financial strain in the Catholic school world.
While 2000 was a gloomy year for voucher supporters, the
bright spot was a potentially highly significant U.S. Supreme Court ruling issued on June
28. Voting 6-3, the justices overturned a Louisiana appeals court decision restricting
federal aid to religious schools.
"The Supreme Court has permitted religious school
students to receive publicly financed textbooks, remedial classes and
transportation," Kenneth Cooper reported in the Washington Post. "The
latest ruling continued the pattern of expanding government aid. Besides computers, it
extends to software programs, library books, projectors, televisions and other equipment
intended for classrooms."
Many journalists saw in the decision an important step toward
revising the Supreme Courts long held standard that "pervasively
sectarian" schools should not receive direct support. The ruling, noted Roger K. Lowe
and Catherine Candisky of the Columbus Dispatch, "could open the door for
parochial schools to seek more government aid and make it easier for school-choice
programs to pass constitutional muster."
concerns a narrow program
providing instructional materials," Jodi Wilgoren reported in the June 29 New York
Times. "But Justice Clarence Thomas took the opportunity to write a strong
pro-voucher opinion focused on a neutrality test: whether aid is equally available to
students regardless of where they study." The ruling, Wilgoren and others noted, is
the "sixth in a row by the Supreme Court to uphold using public money in parochial
But its not a lock that the Supreme Court will take the
next major stepsay, by supporting the Cleveland voucher plan, which it is widely
expected to take up in 2002. While six justices voted to overturn the Louisiana decision,
only four signed Thomas revisionist opinion. Justices Sandra Day OConnor and
Stephen Breyer "drew a distinction between direct aid to schools for materials and
funneling money through parents in the form of vouchers that are used for religious as
well as secular studies," the Times reported.
OConnor and Breyer warned, according to the Washington
Post, that Thomas opinion "foreshadows the approval of direct monetary
subsidies to religious organizations, even when they use the money to advance their
Observers on all sides agree that OConnor is probably
the swing vote on any shift toward supporting vouchers that can be used for religious
schools. "This is an area where evolution takes place in steps, not leaps,"
Clint Bolick, the pro-voucher attorney who argued the Cleveland appeals court case, told
the Associated Press on December 13. "The court has now issued six consecutive
rulings upholding indirect aid. Maybe we can make this the lucky seven."
With hope in their hearts, voucher supporters seem committed
to a long struggle. Over the next year or so, they are expected to focus legislative
efforts on Pennsylvania and New Mexico, build stronger, minority-based, grassroots
coalitions, and fight court challenges to voucher programs already in effect in Cleveland,
Milwaukee, and Florida.
The political calculus is, however, very complex. The
pounding that the Michigan and California initiatives received at the polls has been
sobering. "As the voucher movement matures, divisions between progressives concerned
with equal opportunity for poor children and conservatives seeking free-market approaches
to education are becoming more visible," Siobhan Gorman reported in the December 23 National
For its part, the Bush administration has chosen to give low
priority to a campaign pledge to propose a $1,500 "scholarship" program for
children in "persistently failing schools." Under the headline "Focus on
Tax Break As Support Wanes on School Vouchers," a piece by Diana Jean Schemo in the
January 31 New York Times suggested that the president may downplay vouchers in
favor of a tax deduction of up to $5,000 for parents with children in private schools.
Even passionate voucher supporters like Bolick saw merit in
the approach. "The political fire has been aimed at the voucher portion of the
education program, when in reality the tax credit part of the bill could have a much
larger real world impact," he claimed. "It may be that extending tax credits
would be a politically easier way to advance school choice."
Arguably, it would be even easier politically if religion
were taken out of the equationif government support was limited to secular
private schools. But because of the central importance of Catholic parochial education to
"school choice" in the cities, that would be impossible.
And so the voucher story is fated to be, in significant
measure, a religion story. Outside of Detroit, religion reporters have not been given a
piece of it. It might be a good idea if they were.
the Shoe to Drop", Religion in the News, Spring
to Center Stage", Religion in the News, Fall 1999