the battle over school choice

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interview: barry w. lynn


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.
Jump into the voucher issue. Your organization has been dealing with separation of church and state for a long time and we'll get to that. But vouchers suddenly [are a] hot political issue.

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.

In Cleveland, it's obvious that 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, remind us, 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.

So you're not against Catholic schools?

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.

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. Now there are not many voucher programs in this country, but there is one in Milwaukee, there is one in Cleveland. Jeb Bush had the statewide program in Florida. A local judge there ruled that [vouchers were] unconstitutional for different reasons. There have been different rulings by state supreme courts around the country. Wisconsin gave it a go ahead. Other states have said no. Do you expect that this is one day ever going to get resolved and only by the US Supreme Court?

I think eventually the voucher issue will be decided by the United States Supreme Court, but now what we're seeing is almost every program, with the exception of the one in Wisconsin, as being picked off as unconstitutional by courts for one reason or another. Many times they don't even reach the broad church/state question. They rely on provisions of state constitutions to say this is not an acceptable way to fund private religious education in our state....

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.

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....

What's the danger, what's really involved 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. The best contribution that this country has ever made to intellectual thought, I believe, is the separation of church and state. It means governments don't have to resolve these thorny theological issues. It also means though that religious institutions need to find private support for their action. And you know it's worked very well in this country. We have 2000 religious groups in this country. Millions of Americans who have chosen no spiritual path at all. We all live together in relative harmony. I don't think anybody's going to go over to Afghanistan today or northern Ireland and say, "They've got it figured out better over there." They don't. . . .

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