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A Blow to U.S. Education

June 28, 2002

It's been quite a week of extremes for the courts and religion. A federal appeals court said God couldn't be mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance; now a closely divided Supreme Court held Thursday that spending public money to pay tuition costs at religious schools was constitutional and did not violate the separation of church and state.

The appeals court decision regarding the pledge was more silly than threatening; the high court's voucher ruling, however, has serious implications. Public money should not be used to promote proselytizing and religious training, key parts of the mission of any religious school.

Any parent in a shaky, failing or crowded school district would welcome the chance for a good alternative. But what if the choice were only between public and religious schools? The latter are the schools most likely to accept public vouchers, which provide a paltry sum compared with the yearly tuition at most independent private schools. In Cleveland, whose voucher program the high court majority approved because it allowed students a choice among religious, secular and even better-rated suburban public schools, the reality is that 96% of participating students attend religious schools.

As voucher programs expand, as they are certain to under this ruling, who will oversee the quality of voucher schools? A recent study of California charter schools, which are a welcome alternative to regular public schools, found that in districts that did not rigorously oversee their operations some schools were outright frauds and others were at best poor money managers. A Fresno charter school did not pay its teachers for three months. A chain of charter schools failed to do state-required background checks. Now that religious schools have, in effect, federal protection, states may be reluctant to provide, or be constrained from providing, rigorous oversight.

A widespread voucher program would siphon off the involved parents and striving students who keep up the pressure for progress. No private schools need accept or keep a student with a troubled discipline history, increasing the concentration of violent or disruptive students in public school classes.

Limited voucher programs, triggered by continued failure in a particular school or schools, have their place. They are a goad, a sword over the heads of ineffective principals and uncaring bureaucracies. But voucher proponents, who see the gates opened by the Supreme Court, envision this sort of choice everywhere and for all students.

The economic might of the United States was built on universal public schooling, an egalitarian ideal that sometimes falters in reality. But if public schools become the refuge of those with no alternative because their parents are indifferent or they can't get in elsewhere, a binding force in American life will be lost. Temples, madrassas and various churches will teach in their preferred ways, and too many charlatans will find that the religious tent protects them as well.

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