Education Op/Ed

Community forum: No public money in religious schools

WILLIAM J. MATHIS

This week’s writer is Goshen’s William J. Mathis, who served as a Vermont school superintendent, managing director of the National Educational Policy Center, vice chair of the state board of education and taught Educational Finance at UVM.

Clothed in double-speak, some political leaders engaging in political theater claim to advance freedom, equality, opportunity and other verities while their actions testify to the opposite. Take for example Senate bill 219, which would authorize taxpayer funded vouchers to religious schools. 

Voucher proponents claim the bill will advance anti-discrimination, encourage compliance with state and federal Constitutions, and prevent future litigation. They base this view on a narrow Montana supreme court decision.

The more likely result would be the abolition of the Vermont school voucher scheme. 

An 1869 law is claimed to be the foundation for Vermont vouchers. That rationale requires substantial historical retrofitting. In a small, nineteenth century rural state this meant that towns contracted with each other to provide for “the convenient instruction of youth.” This is a long way from authorizing a religious school choice program. In fact, the common benefits clause of the Constitution prohibits supporting religion with taxpayer money. 

The key to the Senate bill is that it proposes “adequate safeguards” be put in place to prevent religious instruction from being provided by publicly funded religious schools. Reasonable people might lift an eyebrow at this reasoning. Any attempt to set guidelines for what is religious and what is not is a wasted trip to a non-existent reality. The IRS basically gave up trying. The court cases are as old as the nation. The debates are as ancient as humankind. In this rhetorical wonderland, they cloud and mystify but do not clarify.

Other unanswered but compelling issues swarm us like black flies.

The prohibitive cost of operating two systems — Under present day interpretations, towns that do not operate schools at all levels or belong to a regional district may provide vouchers to other schools. Using independent school association counts, and blending elementary and secondary tuition rates, that’s about $130 million of tax money scattered to private schools. If we also picked up the tab for the 2,400 religious school students, that adds another $33 million to the bill. Proponents naively say they will re-purpose the public school money. That’s not likely to happen as the pre-existing schools would still have to operate. The likely result is two expensive but inadequately funded systems, satisfying no one.

The hidden cost of more costs — We know that a number of private schools require extra payment from parents (which a public school cannot do). How much? We don’t know. The costs are hidden.

Economic and social segregation — Brookings researchers concluded that the expansion of vouchers to private K-12 schools will primarily benefit affluent families and come at a non-trivial cost to states. The same is true of Vermont. Knowingly increasing inequalities raises legal and moral questions 

Free-riders and fiscal exploitation — Let’s say a Connecticut couple with two high school children bought a condo in Killington and established a “residence.” Thus, they could call down Vermont taxes to subsidize about $30,000 in school tuition. Thus, the more needy subsidize the wealthy. This raises Constitutional and basic fairness questions.

“School’s Choose or School Choice?” — In a book by this name, Welner and Mommandi explain how private schools tailor their student body with standardized tests, outside participation, “lower cost” students and extracted parental support. Unlike public schools, where if you show up, they take you.

The Solution — In addition to the Montana case, there are at least two other cases winding their way through the courts. One of these upheld the South Carolina constitution’s “no-pay” clause for private schools. U.S. Supreme court Justice John Roberts also said there is no requirement for a state to fund private schools. Peter Teachout questions whether we can constitutionally allow private education at public expense. Can our system pass the requirements of our own Constitution?

Is there a reason to have two separate but unequal systems? The Vermont system was an effective solution for the nineteenth century but is hopelessly outdated for the twenty-first. Computers, communication, transportation and the courts have all evolved. The litany of problems occasioned by trying to design, implement and maintain “adequate safeguards” is not reasonable and the bureaucratic overhead is beyond our will or capacity. The real Rubicon is not about religion, it is about what we want to be as a people. It is about nourishing and embracing the commonwealth.

Education does not exist for the provision of benefits to a particular group. It exists to form and strengthen the commonwealth. It is to advance the democratic ethos of a civil society. It is time for the private schools that directly or indirectly receive public monies to follow the laws and the ethos of the public commonwealth.

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