On Private School Vouchers, Ignorance Reigns


The constitutional barrier, if not already fallen, is now so full of holes - transportation aid, textbook aid, tax credits, etc.- that it no longer has the meaning absolutist church-state separationists wish for it.

A new survey of adult Americans found that almost two-thirds said they know nothing, or very little, about school vouchers. Is this one more dismal sign that most people are not paying attention to serious public issues? Or is it merely an indication that school questions directly affect an ever smaller proportion of citizens. As families become smaller and more adults postpone marriage and child‑rearing, public policy questions about education resonate with an ever smaller audience.

Vouchers for elementary and secondary schooling have been a public issue for several years. In Wisconsin they became hotly debated when it was proposed that Catholic and other religious schools should qualify for vouchers available to poor families in the city of Milwaukee. Yet even after years of public controversy, 60% of the parents of school children in Milwaukee and Cleveland, Ohio—another city where vouchers for use in Catholic as well as public schools has been a controversial question—say they know very little or nothing about them. Even parents of schoolchildren confess ignorance!

Moreover, 42% of public officials and citizens usually considered community leaders say they don’t understand vouchers well enough to form an opinion without more information. It’s not as if the news about vouchers has been hidden, but for some reason, it is not being generally noticed.

Since the education voucher question is not complicated, it is natural to suspect that people are simply not paying attention. If more attention were paid, what would happen? On the evidence of the survey that produced the information above, we may assume more support for more experiments like those in Milwaukee and Cleveland. The Public Agenda survey from which we have been quoting results found that a majority of Americans see no reason to leave Catholic and other religious schools out of voucher programs intended to help needy families find good schooling.

As commonly organized, an education voucher is a promise by the state to pay a certain amount—generally a high percentage of the cost of schooling—to the school which accepts a student from a family qualifying for the voucher. As an example, a family in a qualifying poverty category could gain vouchers worth up to $2,500 each for children of elementary school age and another voucher worth up to $4,000 for a child of high school age. The vouchers would be accepted as tuition payment at a Catholic school, for example, or in lieu of state education funds at a public school. The details can vary but this is basically what a voucher plan does.

There is some strong resistance to voucher plans that include Catholic and other religious schools. Two reasons are cited: first, using tax funds for education in religious schools is prohibited by the Constitution; and second, an open voucher system will weaken the public school system by allowing private schools to siphon off children from homes where there is more awareness and involvement, and where public schools are perceived to be performing poorly. This could leave the public schools with an even higher proportion of marginal and difficult cases.

The second of these reasons should be given careful consideration in the design of any voucher program. The Milwaukee and Cleveland experiments are still too new to indicate clearly whether skimming of the cream, so to speak, is a real problem. More experiments in more places need to be tried.

The constitutional barrier, if not already fallen, is now so full of holes—transportation aid, textbook aid, tax credits, etc.—that it no longer has the meaning absolutist church-state separationists wish for it. And with growth in the charter school movement—which openly invites private groups to operate schools entirely with public money—it is harder than ever to treat the public function of Catholic schools as if it deserves no public support.

If most Americans see nothing wrong with allowing religious schools in an education voucher program, perhaps it is time for Catholic school people to take the lead in educating the public about voucher possibilities. All of the good options in education should be available for everyone.


“On Private School Vouchers, Ignorance Reigns.” National Catholic Register. (January 23-29, 2000).

Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


This editorial, titled “The public needs educating about school vouchers, “ appeared in the Dec. 2 issue of The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa.

Copyright © 2000 National Catholic Register

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