You were quoted in the New York Times as saying that, as a black man
in all good conscience, you could not support even a pilot voucher program.
Why is that?
In my 49 years, when I've seen people talk about ideas for public
education--and particularly of late--they're really talking about a
redistribution of opportunities. They're talking about a redistribution of
wealth. I understand that the whole notion of choice has a very, very
important and valuable competitive nature. I believe in that nature. I
believe in that opportunity. But I also know that there are schools that
already are trying to fight for just getting their roof fixed. They're trying
to make sure that they have technology available for some kids, not even for
everybody yet, that they have an opportunity to have adequate textbooks and
labs for science experiments to be done, on exams that they now have to
So to start talking about removing dollars from the base that would otherwise
go to support that kind of an instructional high quality program is to walk
away from children who are in these schools. And I think that government and
public service in general can't walk away from poor, black, Latino . . . poor
children in general. . . . If that school is broken, then fix it. We have
enough examples on the ground in this country of poor schools, of failing
schools, that got turned around with good leadership, good instruction,
wonderful teachers, a committed community, people who put the necessary and
right emphasis on instruction.
. . . If you really want to fix the school, you can fix the school. You can
fix it very quickly. But I argue that you can also just as easily walk away
from it. Now we're going to allow your kids to get out of it. Well, what
about the kids who can't find a seat in that other school that presumably is a
better school--what about them? Where do they go? What labs do they have?
What preparation do their teachers have? What support will their leaders have?
What kind of materials and supplies and laboratory equipment and so forth will
the kids in that school have? What are you going to do? Are you going to just
simply say, "Well, we've gotten a third of your kids out of here, and now the
two-thirds of you that are remaining, basically don't need this?" That's
absurd. Not only is it absurd, it's insidious. . . .
This is a tremendously hot political issue all over the country. A lot of
people seem to think that vouchers are some kind of Viagra for public school
reform. But, if you look at the data, it's really snake oil. It's not doing the
job that it was designed to do.
Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and
State and a long-time activist in the civil liberties field
and church-state issues. From 1984 until 1991, he was legislative counsel in
the Washington national office of the American Civil Liberties Union. He is an
ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who received his theology
degree from Boston University School of Theology.|
In Cleveland, it's obvious that most the vast majority of the kids
participating in the voucher system there--and there are about 4000 of
them--most are black and most are going to Catholic schools. What's the problem
there with that?
About 96% of the students who get some benefit from the Ohio voucher program
are going to religious schools, and whenever you take funding from the general
treasury of the state and divert it into the treasuries of private religious
schools, you've helped to promote religion. You've helped to make it more
likely for parents to send their children to that religious school. That kind
of government support for religion violates the constitution of most states and
also the Constitution of the United States.
What part of our constitution deals with this issue of separation of church
and state and why is it so important in this country?
The First Amendment to the Constitution reads that Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise
thereof. But what that has been held to mean is that government cannot get in
the business of promoting religion, generally, or specific religions. And [if]
this kind of aid, which really is direct aid when it comes from the taxpayer's
own pockets, ends up in a school of a religious nature, it is government
support for religious education. All you have to do is take a look at those
schools in Cleveland that are getting most of this money. They are religious
from the time the kids walk in the school in the morning until the time that
the school bell rings in the afternoon. That's fine as long as it's paid for
voluntarily. And doesn't cost the taxpayers over 11 million dollars a year. .
We're not against religious organizations, be they Catholic, Nation of Islam,
Protestant, evangelical, [having a right] to set up their own schools. But
having established that constitutional right, they have no right to expect
people of the other faiths of this country, or the millions of Americans who
don't believe in any religion at all, to be forced to fund those religious
schools. This is not a fight about whether [these] schools are good, whether
they do a good job. This is simply a question of whether government can decide
to promote religion. With tax dollars.
. . .
One of the arguments of the other side [of] this issue is that, if they give
the check, the voucher check, to the parent and not to the religious school,
then that means federal taxpayers' money, public money, is not being used [to
fund the] school. What do you think of that idea?
There is this argument that the parents somehow are a wall against this
becoming direct aid. When you give a voucher to parents and say, "Now, you can
only use this for education," the parent then takes the voucher to a school.
The school then takes it to the state treasury and says . . . "Give me the
money." That's a direct payment out of the taxpayer's pocket into the private
schools' treasury that the Constitution doesn't tolerate. The parents are just
a pipeline. It doesn't affect the ultimate constitutional issue. . . .
What's the danger with breaching this wall in this
country between church and state?
I think the danger of losing separation of church and state means that we're
going to find fights going on for government favor. Fights among religious
groups, as they all say, "No, give me a bigger portion of the pie." The
Presbyterians say, "We want this much." The Catholics say, "No, we want a
little more." Somebody else comes in and says, "We want our ten percent." We
see that in other countries. It's not a pretty sight and I don't think we
should have it in the United States. . . . .
I'll take this case of a black mother who says, "Look, my daughter was in a
very unsafe school." Not only was the education bad, in her view, but it was
dangerous. So this voucher program in Cleveland is a lifesaver for [her]
daughter. [She] can send her across town to a Catholic school. Maybe the
education is not outstanding, but it's all right. But the important thing is
that school is safe. It's orderly. [Her] kid's going to be OK. What do you tell
a parent like that?
...Some individuals certainly benefit from a voucher program. But when you look
at the 11 million dollars, for example, spent each year in Ohio, if you spent
the same amount of money on after school tutoring programs, mentoring programs,
you'd reach far more students and keep those students safe during what even the
FBI calls the three most dangerous hours in a young person's life, between 3
and 6:00 in the afternoon. We know what works. We have programs that we don't
fund, that take at-risk young people in inner city schools and improve the
education that they get, improve their test scores. We know how to make the
schools safer. We can do it for a fraction of the cost of diverting all this
money to private schools. We just don't choose to do it. One of the most
annoying things about this entire argument is that people say, "Look, we have a
new plan called vouchers," but they won't fund the old plans that we know to
work. The ones that do make a difference in the lives, not just of a handful of
young people, but of whole school-aged populations....
Many of the schools that get voucher assistance in place like Cleveland can
pick and choose students. They tend to pick students who are more favorably
disposed to their religious background. They aren't picking them on a random
basis. Any minor disciplinary infraction generally sends the student out of the
private school back into the public school system. So this is really a con
game. This is not helping America's inner city schools. The one thing that
would help is if we put our money where our hearts ought to be and make sure
that we have a quality education for every young person in this country.
Vouchers are never going to do it and I don't think most of its proponents
really care. What they want is the money for middle class parents to send their
kids to these elitist private schools. And have the taxpayers support it....