The day oral arguments on the Ohio school voucher case were heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, I was one of several guests invited to discuss the topic on arch-conservative Alan Keyes' TV talkshow "Making Sense" on MSNBC.
Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, joined me in one segment as an able advocate of secular public-funded schools.
Keyes asked what is wrong with giving parents a "choice" to send children to religious schools.
"It involves state funding of indoctrination," I replied. "And let's look who the big beneficiary is of the voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee. It's the Roman Catholic Church. Two-thirds of these schools that are being used are Catholic. We're bailing out the failing Catholic church [schools] with this.
"It's something that could topple not only the wall of separation between church and state, but it could destroy our public school system, which is supposed to be the great melting pot.
"There's no virtue in religiously segregated schools. People shouldn't pat themselves on the back for wanting to segregate children on the basis of their religion. Church schools are not better schools. I think that the Supreme Court, if it approves this, could ruin our country. I think that Bin Laden would support the Cleveland program. Look where the terrorists came from: the religious schools.
"And they're divisive. Look at the example of Ireland, what was happening to the Catholic children last September, being assaulted on the way to school, because we have religiously segregated systems in that country where the Protestants and the Catholics never meet.
"I think that our public schools are the richness of our country, and we should be supporting them."
I could only shake my head for most of the rest of the discussion, which, contrary to the show's title, did not make much sense.
A pro-voucher guest, Caroline Hoxby, made the voucher movement's most disingenuous, dishonest and insincere case--that defunding public schools in favor of private (religious) schools actually helps struggling public schools.
Hoxby claimed her studies showed test scores had improved in Milwaukee Public Schools as a result of the voucher "competition" (ignoring the effects of Wisconsin's SAGE program to limit class sizes, for instance). The mind-boggling irony is that Milwaukee's voucher schools are exempt from such standardized testing! There is zilch accountability, with harsh standards for public schools and very few for voucher schools.
So much is at stake with the similar voucher program in Cleveland now before the Supreme Court. The facts are so damning. More than 99% of the approximately 4,000 students enrolled in the 6-year-old Cleveland voucher program attend religious schools.
If that's not enough evidence of state subsidy and endorsement of religion, look at the cozy set-up: Just as in the Milwaukee voucher program, state checks for vouchers of up to $2,250 a year are sent directly to the schools for parental endorsement.
Where public dollars go, public accountability should follow. Yet Cleveland voucher schools don't even have on-site inspection. Voucher schools can apply for exemptions from Ohio standards on open records, teacher certification and background checks, and fire, health and safety inspection laws.
A notorious case exposed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer involved the Islamic Academy School of Arts and Sciences, which operated under voucher funding for two years. Its 110-year-old building was a fire and lead-paint hazard, a majority of instructors lacked state teaching licenses, and one had even been convicted of first-degree murder. A state audit found misuse of $70,000 in tax dollars when the school claimed tax money for students who were not enrolled.
The Golden State Christian Academy, a parent-run school, taught students by videos provided by the Pensacola Christian Academy, "dedicated to serving the Lord through Christian education." After two years it was finally defunded for gross noncompliance, including keeping no immunization records, and safety lapses.
The tax money, of course, is raided from the Cleveland district's portion of the state Disadvantaged Pupil Impact AID program, with Cleveland schools losing up to $11 million a year in such aid (and estimated to climb to as much as $22 million this year).
Voucher schools can exclude many disadvantaged students, such as those learning English as a second language or severely handicapped children. About the time the voucher program started, all-day kindergartens in many Cleveland public schools were cut--due to lack of money. Tax money could be used for reading programs Cleveland schools would like to inaugurate, and to keep class sizes smaller, a proven method for improving learning. The predictable effect has been that the operating costs of the Cleveland public schools have continued to climb, while it is losing significant state aid.
About a third of the children in the Cleveland program, ballyhooed as helping low-income children, were already enrolled in private schools by their families. The U.S. Court of Appeals, in ruling the program unconstitutional, noted that almost 40% of students receiving vouchers in the 1999-2000 school year were above the poverty line.
A state-ordered audit found that $1.4 million was spent on transportation in the first year, mostly in funding $15-$18-a-day taxi rides, compared to average nonvoucher transportation costs of $3.33 per day. More than $419,000 in overbilling by taxi companies since 1997 was uncovered in January 1999.
Study after study has found no statistical difference in scoring for students in public versus voucher schools. Studies have found lower grades for voucher students attending new start-up schools, according to People for the American Way.
Of course, while these problems with voucher schools are maddening, they are not the point. The issue is whether, under our Constitution, taxpayers can be forced to subsidize religious schools. Many of the remarks by Supreme Court Justices at the Feb. 20 oral argument strayed distressingly far afield of this essential question of law and principle.
Did you know the Catholic Conference of Bishops first began campaigning in the 1880s to force the government to fund its parochial schools? More than a century of lobbying has finally paid off.
If religious prayer and worship in taxpaid public schools are unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court has held since 1948, how then could it be lawful to coerce taxpayers to support and maintain religion-based schools that conduct daily prayer sessions, masses and religious proselytizing that are at the very heart of their religious missions?
And how can we taxpayers possibly afford to fund two systems: one secular, the other religious? It would bankrupt the country, and eviscerate the very heart of the First Amendment.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today.