Jewish World Review June 11, 2003 / 11 Sivan, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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Consumer Reports

School Vouchers and the Myth of Neutrality | Recently I attended a forum at my old high school on free speech. The fact that the school held a meeting to discuss its policies on student speech should signal that the administration values openness and debate; and yet the meeting also made clear that the school has its own very definite moral beliefs, which conditioned the way teachers and administrators responded to speech that some people found offensive. The meeting gave the (accurate) impression of an academically excellent but overwhelmingly left-leaning school.

High school wasn't the first time I attended a school with a clear worldview. My public elementary school had a strong Afrocentric twist. I can still recall most of the Seven Kwanzaa Principles, with their odd mix of vague uplift (imani, faith; nia, purpose) and vague socialism (ujamaa, cooperative economics; ujima, collective work and responsibility).

I've never attended a religious school. The ethical beliefs that shaped the schools I attended weren't always articulated or laid out in an easily-recognized package, but they existed nonetheless. I'm not sure how a school could exist without some form of ethical system--an ethical framework that covered matters the law leaves untouched. Attempts to pretend that schools can be "value-neutral" collapse the moment any controversy arises.

And controversies flourish in the pluralistic American hothouse. Think about all the battles over the content of public education: How should schools present evolution? How should they teach the Crusades, the conquistadors, the Civil War, the rise of Islam, the Reformation, and the New Deal? Should school nurses distribute condoms to tenth-graders? To fifth-graders? Where should the nurse refer teens who fear they might be pregnant--to Planned Parenthood, a pro-life pregnancy center, both, neither? Should schools teach the Bible as literature, and risk offending both believers and atheists, or should they avoid it altogether and risk turning out graduates ignorant of one of the biggest and most influential sources of Western culture? Should schools sponsor clubs for gay students?

When we turn to (secular) private education, matters become even more complex. My high school dealt with issues like: Should the school (whose student body was mostly Jewish) close during the High Holy Days, rather than holding classes with the sparse group of goyishe students? Should a student be disciplined for wearing a Confederate flag patch? For jokingly hanging a Soviet-themed May Day banner that several other students thought mocked the devastation caused by Communism?

As a parlor game while I was writing this piece, I decided to see if I could list the ways my high school endorsed views I now find deeply wrong: the gay club (which I helped to start... sigh), the standard-issue Protestant propaganda in my European history class, the degrading sex ed. Don't get me wrong--I got a great education there, and many of my teachers were simply stellar. Many of them challenged us to question the received wisdom of the leftist school community. But I have to admit that this often-admirable school promoted a lot of things I can't abide.

Which is why I have such a hard time understanding one of the most common arguments against using school vouchers at religious schools. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case challenging Washington's law against using any taxpayer funds for religious education. The case doesn't actually concern vouchers--it's about a university student who wants to use his state grant to study theology at a Christian college. But if the Court rules that Washington has impermissibly discriminated against religion, the results will be extremely important for the voucher movement: The Court will have struck down the "Blaine amendments" in as many as 37 states.

The Blaine amendments received their name from their 19th-century promoter, James Blaine. Blaine amendments have generally been interpreted to block the use of vouchers at religious schools. Although the amendments originally targeted Catholic schools, they were written in broad enough terms that striking them down would benefit all religious schools--Protestant academies, yeshivas, Islamic schools, and the rest.

I'm not going to touch the constitutional questions, because I haven't studied them. Blaine amendments may be consistent with the First Amendment, or they may not. Nor do I have space here to address the larger issues--both philosophical and practical--surrounding vouchers. What's more interesting to me is the argument used by the Blaine amendments' defenders: "I shouldn't have to pay for children to be taught views I disagree with." If taken seriously, this argument not only undermines all publicly-funded education, it actually undermines regular old public schooling more than it undermines voucher-funded religious schooling!

That's because all schools teach values, whether they like it or not. In public schools, taxpayer money directly funds the promotion of various moral beliefs, several of which (from gay clubs to abstinence-only education) offend many of the taxpayers. With vouchers, on the other hand, what we're directly funding is parental choice in education. The government need not implicitly endorse any belief other than the basic beliefs that parents are generally the best directors of their children's education and that taxpayer funds should be used to ensure that all children are educated. Via public schools, the government implicitly endorses a host of moral claims; via vouchers, only these two.

Think about it this way: We'd be outraged if food stamps couldn't be used at kosher delis or halal shops. We understand, with food stamps, that the money is meant to provide choice--not unlimited choice (you've gotta use food stamps for food), but a fairly wide array of choices. No one would complain that he was being asked to "fund religion" if he learned that a food-stamp recipient was shopping exclusively at a kosher market. We understand that we're funding the broad category "food for the poor." So too, vouchers are funding the broad category "education." If some of that money finds its way to the pockets of people promoting a worldview I disagree with, so be it. As long as public money funds education in any form, there's no way to keep taxpayers from funding worldviews they disagree with, either directly or indirectly; those who believe vouchers are unique in this respect misunderstand the nature of education and of American pluralism.

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© 2003, Eve Tushnet