School Vouchers: The Next Education Frontier?
School vouchers can be a tricky issue: the Supreme Court ruled that indirect voucher programs that put money in the hands of parents are constitutional, but that direct government funding of private, and often religious schools, is not acceptable. So if government voucher funds are given to parents who then use them to pay for the private school of their choosing, the funds can end up at Jewish day schools, Catholic high schools, Islamic institutions, or secular schools. This concept seems lost on one Louisiana state legislator, who enthusiastically supported Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher program until she discovered that the ability of parents to use funds at “religious” school does not by definition mean Christian schools. Once she discovered that funds could be used at Islamic schools in particular, she changed her position and opposed the program.
While the premise of how voucher programs work was lost on this Louisiana legislator, it is not lost on the 35 school districts and two major teachers’ unions in Louisiana that filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the program from beginning in August based on the constitutional prohibition of government funded, endorsed or supported religion.
On Tuesday, Judge Tim Kelley refused to delay or prevent the start of Louisiana’s school voucher program but his ruling surprisingly had nothing to do with the program’s constitutionality. Rather, Judge Kelley stated that he was bound by a 1969 Louisiana law stipulating that so long as a state agency submits an affidavit certifying a budget deficit will occur if a law is blocked, the court cannot issue an injunction. Once a state agency in Louisiana certifies that a budget deficit will be created, the Court has no choice but to accept the certification.
Education policy has in recent years been an area where the left and right have particularly diverging views. Both agree our education system is broken in many ways. But, generally speaking, those on the right favor vouchers that allow parents the option of paying for private schools that perform better than the neighborhood public schools. Those on the left generally argue that more money, not less, should be invested in our public schools and that vouchers shrink that pot of funds. The question being raised today is if Louisiana’s voucher program indicates a shift in how conservatives are approaching education at the state and federal level.
Gov. Jindal believes that parents are the greatest accountability system when it comes to education. While that may be true in some respects, the healthy functioning of any society depends on basic standards and lessons that are required of all students. Yet the Louisiana example is just a microcosm of the debate happening over national education policy. Are parental choice, taxpayer funded religious education, and the decline of the public education system the next frontier?
The school districts and teachers unions in Louisiana have not yet decided whether they will appeal Judge Kelley’s decision on constitutional grounds. The Reform Movement believes in a quality education for every child, which requires adequate funding and first-class teacher training. Each voucher issued by Louisiana, Indiana, Florida, the District of Columbia (the only voucher program under the purview of the federal government), and numerous other states, is money taken from the public education system, which educates over 90% of all American children. Education reform is necessary, but not at the expense of America’s public school students.