TOPICS > Politics

School Vouchers

February 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The voucher debate has also been played out in state capitals, the White House and in Congress. For more on the pros and cons of the idea, we are joined by Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State; and Clint Bolick, legal director of the Institute for Justice.

Mr. Bolick, if as Jan just described, so many of these schools are religious schools at this… that this voucher money is going to, how can you say this is not a religious program?

CLINT BOLICK: Well there’s two reasons. First of all not a single dollar of public funds crosses the threshold of a religious school unless a parent has chosen to remove her children from the Cleveland schools or not send them to the Cleveland schools in the first place — and to choose… this program among a competing array of choice programs in Cleveland and then to choose a religious school. In fact, non-religious schools do participate in the program, and no one who has wanted a non-religious school has been turned away. The second thing is the explanation for why there are so many kids in religious schools in this program. And that is two-fold.

First of all, suburban public schools were invited to participate in the program and received three times as much money as the private schools in the program. They all said no, we don’t want these kids coming to our schools. But private schools — mainly religious schools — said we will take them.

The other reason is that nonsectarian private schools can become charter schools in Cleveland. The two largest nonsectarian schools in the scholarship program became charter schools and now get twice as much money as in the scholarship program. That’s why there’s so many kids in religious schools but they are all there by choice.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Lynn as long as parents are choosing to send their children to these private schools, to these religious schools, what’s wrong with that?

BARRY LYNN: I think we have to get back to first principles which is that in this country the government does not force taxpayers to subsidize religion. That is to say, we don’t have tax dollars paying for churches, temples, mosques or synagogues. Consequently, we also should not be forcing taxpayers to support the religious ministries of those parent organizations. And time after time when we depose, that is, we go in and ask people why they start these private religious schools, they are primarily designed to promote the faith.

I don’t think that the taxpayers of Ohio ought to be asked to support through involuntary payments, payments that go overwhelmingly, 96% of the cases, to religious schools. The parent in this case is not a circuit breaker. The parent is simply the person who signs over the check, which has been mailed from the treasury of Ohio, to the private school — the parent goes in and signs it over to the school. It’s really direct payment, no different than the kinds of programs that the Supreme Court rejected in the 1970s that said even if parents are reimbursed for tuition, it still… it is still money that is flowing into the coffers of religious schools.

GWEN IFILL: If the Cleveland schools are failing schools, what should be done instead?

BARRY LYNN: Well, first of all we shouldn’t be taking $11 million a year and transferring it away from disadvantaged young people in the Cleveland public schools and moving it into these private schools, which by the way aren’t even performing academically any better than the public schools. But there are things we can do. And we know what they are because in many other American cities at-risk young people have been helped by specific programs that are tested, tried, true and workable developed at Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania. Now they cost money.

So the question is do we really want to divert money to private religious schools through this side show of vouchers or do we want to spend the $11 million and more, if necessary, to buy programs that work, that make an academic difference, that literally change the lives of disadvantaged students? If we follow Clint’s plan, we will get sidetracked away from what ought to be the fundamental guarantee and has been since Brown Versus Board of Education: A quality public school, free education that works for every child in America.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Bolick, if the de facto result of this program is that most students end up in religious schools, they end up saluting the Christian flag as well as the American flag, is that the goal?

CLINT BOLICK: Oh, absolutely not. The goal here is education. And what the state did was to look for every possible option for these kids. It made tutors available for kids in public schools. It created charter schools that can be nonsectarian private schools or public schools. It invited the suburban public schools to try to help solve the problem and it extended the choice to religious schools. Now if you look at all schools of choice within the Cleveland school district, only about 16.5% of the kids are in religiously affiliated schools. Other kids are in magnet schools or charter schools, which are non-religious.

But the point is this is an educational rescue program. An alarm bell was set off. And it turns out that religious schools disproportionately answered that alarm bell. And the parents who choose it– and I represent these parents– they are not sending their kids there to salute the Christian flag. They’re sending them there because it’s a place where they know their kids will be safe and receive a high quality education. It seems to me this fulfills the goals of public education. We should worry less about where a child is being educated and worrying more about whether a child is being educated.


BARRY LYNN: Well, I do think we have to worry though about what’s going to work. We have to find systems that work. And we also have to recognize that this program is to help private schools. Now it turns out that this has also turned out to be a bailout of the religious school system in Cleveland. They were closing schools. All of a sudden now they have some more income, which does allow them to be bailed out. So to look as this as if the history of this program was simply to help students I think belies the history of this whole program. It is to help, among other things, the major parochial school system in the City of Cleveland.

GWEN IFILL: If this program were instituted and as it happened most of the participants were not religious schools, would you support it?

BARRY LYNN: No, I wouldn’t, because I don’t think that they should be ever endorsing by forcing taxpayers to support religious ideas with which they disagree. How religious are they? I mean one of these schools literally has on its admission form that you should not feel comfortable sending your child to the school unless you’re a Christian or expect to become one. I mean this is a tremendous pressure. This belies the notion that this is just a kind of feel-good system open to everyone.

Most of these schools have as their principal mission — and believe me as a minister myself, I understand and accept and support the notion that religious schools should have a religious purpose — but I do not think that the answer, and in fact I think the moral answer as well as the constitutional answer is not to take money away from public school students and divert it into these private religious academies. It’s sad to say this, but the history of vouchers didn’t begin yesterday.

It didn’t begin with Clint Bolick. It began after the Brown Versus Board of Education decision requiring integration of schools. Private white academies in the South said, you know, we think it would be a good idea for us to try to get vouchers, state- supported taxpayer funded vouchers. Then we can send our kids off into white schools and have the government pay for it. Ultimately we’re going to end up with the same thing, not integration but….

GWEN IFILL: Let me let Mr. Bolick respond to that.

CLINT BOLICK: Well, if you accept Barry’s logic, then of course the G.I. Bill and Pell grants would also be unconstitutional because you can use those grants to go to a divinity school to study for the ministry, which obviously advances the mission of the religious organization. Barry has already lost that battle and so he’s trying to draw a new battle line here.

What is totally offensive about what Barry just said comparing this to the segregation academies after Brown Versus Board of Education the overwhelming majority of parents in the school choice programs around the country are Black and Hispanic. They are overwhelmingly low income. These are the kids that the public school system in many instances has given up on. This is their life preserver.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you this. Who is… if not the government, who is to rescue failing public schools?

CLINT BOLICK: Well that’s exactly right. The government does need to rescue failing schools. But in the meantime, you know, we keep talking about all of these wonderful programs that Barry is talking about, but every single urban school system in the United States remains lousy even though many of them are now spending 13 or 14,000 dollars.

BARRY LYNN: That’s simply not true.

CLINT BOLICK: The fact is that these parents are saying I can’t wait until Barry saves the schools. They want a money-back guarantee.

BARRY LYNN: The truth in most of these programs after a few years what happens is more middle class parents end up starting to get these vouchers. It stops being just a program that even in theory helps only the poor and it begins to balkanize communities further along what turn out to be racial and religious lines. I don’t think that’s the solution. I think when Clint accuses people in the educational reform movement of not succeeding, it’s because he’s not looking at these programs. It does cost a little money but in the long run it doesn’t even cost as much as his voucher program, and it works…for all kids.

GWEN IFILL: A final question to you both: How much hinges on the Supreme Court decision for your movement?

BARRY LYNN: Frankly, even if the Supreme Court were to uphold vouchers, I think the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that, except in the minds of some voucher promoters, vouchers do not work to enhance academic achievement in any substantial way. I think state legislators and Congress will continue to reject it as just a bad idea. If it doesn’t work let’s not spend money for it.

CLINT BOLICK: What hinges on this decision is whether the promise of Brown Versus Board of Education of an equal educational opportunity is going to be realized. If we have to go outside the public sector, then that’s what we have to do.

GWEN IFILL: Clint Bolick, Barry Lynn, thank you very much for joining us.