Spring 2001, Vol. 4, No. 1

Spring 2001

Related Articles:
"Waiting for the Shoe to Drop", Religion in the News, Spring 2000

"Vouchers Move to Center Stage", Religion in the News, Fall 1999

Other articles
in this issue:

From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does

Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return

Palestinians and Israelis:
Oh, Jerusalem!

Faith-Based Ambivalence

Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On

What Would Moses Do?:
Debt Relief in the Jubilee Year

Hide, Jesse, Hide

Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight

Aum Alone

Left Behind at the Box Office

Puffing Exorcism














































































































































Hit Counter

The Voucher Circus
 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 religious groups.

In Ohio, the Roman Catholic Church and its parochial schools have been at the center of all phases of the development and implementation of Cleveland’s 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 Appeal’s decision on December 11 to uphold a 1999 federal district court ruling that Cleveland’s 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 majority opinion.

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 Dispatch’s 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 state’s archives to document the close collaboration of then-Gov. George Voinovich and the state’s 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 Cleveland’s 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, Cleveland’s 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 Cleveland’s Catholic schools to the city’s public schools."

Much of the media’s 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 school’s 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 state’s 6.6 million school children to a tax-funded voucher worth $4,000.

California’s voucher campaign was also strikingly different from those in Ohio and Michigan because of the very low profile of religious groups—even though Catholic schools educate almost 60 percent of California’s private school enrollees.

The state’s 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 can’t be said of Michigan, where the Catholic Church and some African-American Protestant leaders were deeply and visibly involved in the campaign.

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 teacher’s 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 don’t think this is Democrat or Republican. I don’t say union or non-union—I say what’s 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 bishop’s 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 religion."

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 wouldn’t let up. He immediately challenged "the measure’s 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 another way."

Capelato then quoted the cardinal’s critique of teacher’s 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. "Let’s 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, Milwaukee’s 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 won’t do this for $13,000 a year,’ she added. ‘There is a call to ministry, but there is also a call to wellness to yourself.’"

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 nation’s Catholic school systems—the 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 Court’s 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."

"Yesterday’s ruling…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 schools."

But it’s not a lock that the Supreme Court will take the next major step—say, 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 O’Connor 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.

O’Connor 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 religious objectives."

Observers on all sides agree that O’Connor 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 Journal.

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 equation—if 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.

Related Articles:

"Waiting for the Shoe to Drop", Religion in the News, Spring 2000

"Vouchers Move to Center Stage", Religion in the News, Fall 1999