When School Choice is Anything But

There has been much talk about the United States’ abysmal record on education. America spends more per student than any other developed country except for Switzerland, and to what end? For those critical of public education, one proposed cure for these ills is “school choice.” Private schools have long had a place in educating America’s youth. Indeed, for many years there were only private schools. However, looking at the makeup of today’s “private schools”, Secular Americans have every right to be concerned about the final destination of taxpayers’ dollars.

Of the more than 33,000 private schools in the U.S. in the 2009-10 school year, just over 68 percent had some religious orientation. And of that 68 percent, nearly half of the elementary schools and three-fourths of the secondary schools were Catholic-affiliated. Strictly speaking, if a family is looking for a private Catholic school then, yes, it is likely that choices abound.

The Rehnquist-led Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in favor of an Ohio school voucher program in 2002 (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris). The ruling claimed that the voucher program was neutral with respect to religion because secular and religious schools were available to families. 82 percent of the schools participating in the Ohio voucher program had a religious affiliation. 96 percent of the students participating in the program were enrolled in religiously-affiliated schools. Nothing about either of those statistics suggests diversity.

From Secular America’s perspective, this is a blatant violation of the First Amendment. If 96 percent of families choose a religious school (in an area where 8 in 10 private schools are religious), how can that be anything other than government establishment of religion? And for believers who protest that eliminating these programs impinges on personal freedoms, I must ask if they would be so supportive if a school system had a voucher program where 8 in 10 schools were Islamic? (A near mathematical impossibility as only 0.7 percent of private schools in the U.S. is Islamic.)

Whether it comes in the form of a direct voucher or the “back door” of a tax-break for choosing a private school, advocates for public funding of religiously-affiliated private schools are increasing their calls for a seat at the taxpayer trough. Last week, the American Center for School Choice announced the formation of the Commission on Faith-Based Schools. At the very least we can be grateful that they’re coming out of the closet on their real goals. Because, while the American Center for School Choice may make little mention of religious schools in total, the “choices” available to a family looking for a nonreligious private school are few and far between.

The Commission of Faith-Based Schools intends to release a report next spring and subsequently convene a national conference. It will be interesting to see if they bother to address the First Amendment issues public funding of faith-based schools inevitably raises. Although the Supreme Court’s decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris argued to the contrary, voucher programs that allow religious programs to participate are an explicit endorsement of religion, and Christianity specifically. Sectarian schools have long been a part of America’s education history, but taxpayer funding of them has not. A debate can and should be had about our country’s public education system and what ails it. Unfortunately, as with every other faith-healing, religion won’t make the patient any better.  


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