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School Vouchers Nurture Diversity

By Chris Little

Sick to death of the sorry state of the Denver Public Schools, a number of Denver citizens have filed a class action lawsuit demanding reform or, in the alternative, the ability to purchase education for their children with vouchers.

Under a voucher system, the tax monies collected for education are not turned over immediately to the public schools but are distributed to parents who may then use them for tuition payment at the school of their choice, including private religious schools. Educational vouchers would help economically disadvantaged families purchase higher quality education for their children, and would force the public schools to improve by competing for customers. Several Western democratic nations already have voucher systems and they all work exceedingly well.

Of course, the educational establishment and its supporters are howling over the prospect of vouchers. These folks know that a voucher system threatens the establishment’s definition of “pluralism.”

Pluralism, to the education establishment, essentially means secularism. While the establishment recognize the existence of a multitude of religious and cultural communities, the establishment insists that best way to prepare the children of these communities for American citizenship is through secular (non-religious) education.

But while secularism claims to be neutral, it is implicitly hostile to religious viewpoints which see God as something that should pervade every minute of the day, rather than be confined to churches on Sundays.

Parents who choose to pay for religious education for their children still have to bear the heavy taxes to support the government schools. And families who cant bear the double burden of taxes for government schools plus tuition for religious schools are simply stuck with the government schools.

Happily, there are signs that the American people are tiring of the hegemony and incompetence of bureaucracies in general, and that of the educational establishment in particular. According to a study by Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, Americans are increasingly turning to “mediating structures” for assistance in raising and educating their children. Mediating structures are “those institutions standing between the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life, the most important of which are family, neighborhood, church and voluntary associations.” Americans are turning away from “mega structures,” namely “the growing bureaucracies that administer wide sectors of the society, such as education. . . .”

John Coons and Stephen Sugarman argued similarly in their study, “Education by Choice: The Case for Family Control.” The basic problem, according to Coons and Sugarman, is that the educational establishment has become an oppressive mega structure with an unworkable “one-size-fits-all” approach to education.

America is a culturally, ideologically and religiously diverse nation; public education that should be forced to accommodate to this diversity, not vice versa. “We live in a religiously splintered world, surrounded by a wide range of faith communities,” noted a 1981 Calvin College study on educational choice. “Pluralism, as an alternative way of living together in society, seeks to reckon seriously with these very real philosophical differences. . . Fundamental to this (reality) is the free exercise of religion in society, the state, and the schools.” Only the voucher system, argue these authors, can properly allow our public education system to accommodate religious diversity.

Unfortunately, there is a tenacious myth afoot that religious education breaches the “wall of separation” between church and state. But the myth represents a complete misreading of the principle of state/church separation, argues constitutional scholar Robert Cord. In his book Separation of Church and State: Historical Fact and Current Fiction, Cord marshals numerous historical data showing that the Founding Fathers did not believe that separation of church and state required government never to have any dealings with religious entities.

For example, Thomas Jefferson authorized a land purchase treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians, who had converted to Catholicism, and the treaty provided federal monies for the Kaskaskia’s church building program and their priests salary. If Thomas “Wall-of-Separation” Jefferson did not view this transaction as a breach of the wall, then surely he would have no problem with educational vouchers for religious schools.

Colorado arguably leads the nation in educational reform, as evidenced by such things as its liberalized home schooling statutes and its burgeoning charter school movement. The Independence Institute’s Parent Information Center provides parents around the state with test scores and evaluations of public schools all over the state. But full and truly fair educational reform will only come with a voucher system. If the ever agree to get out of the way.

Chris Little is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden.

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