Jul 1, 2002
At the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school vouchers could be used in church-run or religious schools. The proposal for vouchers has been around for almost half a century. In 1955, in the middle of the McCarthy period, University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman proposed a system of “vouchers,” that is, statements of credit given to parents, allowing them to pay for tuition (or part of it) at whichever school the parent might choose, public or private, including church run schools. But even in the middle of that reactionary time-period, the proposal did not go very far, since quite obviously it would mean the destruction of the public schools, if it were really to be implemented.
More recently, legislators in over 30 states have introduced proposals authorizing such vouchers, in an attempt to play to the religious right. Only three states – Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida – actually passed such laws however. And every time a voucher proposal was put on the ballot in a popular referendum, it was voted down.
In general, the courts have long ruled against spending public money in religious schools, on the grounds that this violated the constitutional mandate separating church and state. In 1973, the Supreme Court itself issued a decision which prohibited New York state from reimbursing parents for religious school tuition.
Now, however, the Supreme Court has reversed the earlier rulings, declaring that state tax moneys can be used to further religious education. This reversal does not depend on some fine legal distinctions. Nor is it simply the product of the change in Supreme Court justices. It is an acknowledgment that we are living in an exceedingly reactionary time period.
It’s obvious that the proposals which are floating around today – whether for vouchers or for charter schools – are completely crazy, even in what they would concretely set up: people running from one school system to another, from the public school to a private school, with vouchers in hand plus their other hand in their own pocket to come up with the difference; new schools being set up, reserving admission for only those students the new schools want to admit. The old schools today founder, deprived of money. If more of their money is drained, they will collapse, and yet there will not be enough money to provide vouchers which would allow working class parents to send their kids to the best schools.
This is a proposal which would take education backward several centuries, back to the time when schools were not available to everyone, to the time when churches decided what would be taught and what would not be taught.