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Choice, competition and children: school vouchers threaten America's future.

Do we want to support and improve our public schools or do we want to dismantle them? That is the question. At least that is the question school vouchers force us to confront.

To answer this question we need to be honest. We must begin by acknowledging that vouchers do nothing to improve public education. They do just the opposite. Vouchers drain badly needed money from already underfunded public schools, public schools that today educate almost 90 percent of all American children K-12.

Supporters argue that vouchers offer "choice" and "competition." This simply is not true. Private schools educate about 10 percent of K-12 students in this country. Since almost all private schools are religious schools, the only so-called "choice" vouchers offer is between a public education and a private, religious education.

Is this real "choice" or is this a backdoor way for the government to subsidize primarily private religious schools? You decide.

"Choice" has other serious problems that we need to consider.

For example, vouchers undermine religious liberty. They force Americans to pay taxes to support religious schools they may find disagreeable or even objectionable with their own religious or philosophical beliefs. This runs counter to the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty.

In America, all religious activities should be supported with voluntary contributions, not tax money. Why?

The Founders were unyielding in their support of separation of church and state and strongly opposed taxation to bolster any religion. This was not because they were anti-religious.

Ben Franklin may have said it best: "When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."

Less understood is how vouchers present a serious threat to the independence of religious institutions and schools.

Separation of church and state is a two-way road. Not only does it keep religion out of government affairs, it keeps government out of religious affairs as well. Taking government money may sound good at first, but it is really a Faustian bargain. Government money ultimately means government control.

Taking government money to support religious schools will inevitably bring unwelcome government intrusion. It will bring a growing dependence on government largess and the political winds that come and go. And, potentially, it will mean fundamental government involvement in church affairs, a clear violation of church-state separation.

Supporters of vouchers also speak of the magic of the market and the benefits of "competition." But what competition are they talking about?

If by "competition" they mean different faith traditions will be competing for students, how many parents will allow their children to go to schools that preach different faith traditions than their own?

I would argue not many.

Maybe, by "competition," pro-voucher folks mean that sometime in the future Wall Street and hedge-fund managers will use voucher money to open up private, unaccountable, corporate-run schools whose first responsibility will be to return profits to their stockholders.

What could go wrong here?

Let's remember that under most voucher plans, private schools can deny admission to any student they choose. Public schools cannot. Private schools can discriminate against students based on religion, disability, economic background, academic record, English-language proficiency, disciplinary history and other criteria. Public schools cannot. Private schools can "skim" the cream. Public schools cannot.

According to multiple studies in the District of Columbia, Milwaukee and Cleveland, school voucher programs have not improved student academic performance. Vouchers have also done little to help low-income students because payments often do not cover the entire cost of tuition and other fees, including the cost of transportation to schools that can be many miles away.

In actuality, vouchers harm poor students' education by undermining the public schools upon which they rely.

It is illogical to believe that we can take money out of the public school system and improve education, especially in our inner cities. But this is what voucher supporters are advocating.

Our public school system made the United States the preeminent nation of the 20th and the first part of the 21st centuries. Why would we replace such a successful school system with private religious schools or an untested, profit-driven and corporate education model? They would seem to be a recipe for disaster.

We do need to decide.

Eric Lane is president of the San Antonio Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
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Title Annotation:VIEWPOINT
Author:Lane, Eric
Publication:Church & State
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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