The Case Against Vouchers by Alex Molnar (November 1996)

 This is excerpted from a speech presented at the national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin, on October 12, 1996.

By Alex Molnar

Private school vouchers represent such a danger to the separation of church and state because not all of the forces arrayed in support of vouchers are those that have religion or the attempt to include religious schools as their agenda. The people promoting private school vouchers represent a broad coalition, often times of somewhat conflicting agendas, that come together on this particular issue.

The first voucher plan wasn’t from the United States, it was from France in the late nineteenth century, which is quite intriguing. Some of you probably don’t remember from direct experience, but may have heard of the Franco-Prussian War. For those of you who have heard of it and wondered how it turned out, France lost. After the war, of course, there was an enormous amount of recrimination because countries don’t like to lose wars. Who did they blame for having lost the war? Was it the generals? Was it their economic policy? Was it strategy and tactics? It was the public schools. Many of the French looked longingly at the Prussian system, which had to do with religious involvement in the education of children.

A parliamentary commission established following the war came up with the recommendation for school vouchers that looked very similar to some of the proposals that are now being floated in the United States. It was defeated, and never made its way to the chamber of deputies for debate, because of the strong anti-clerical feeling in France. There was a hangover from the French Revolution which said, in essence, we don’t want taxpayer money going to religious schools. They were primarily concerned about Catholic schools, which represent the largest number of sectarian schools in the United States, as well.

You’d think that the entire Catholic school system had been beatified when you listen to the voucher debate. In the language of the voucher debate now, you would think the Catholic system a divine device which cannot fail to educate poor children well. In fact, I think New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani would like to send every mother-loving son and daughter into the Catholic school system. Well, having been raised Catholic and having been spared the Catholic school system, I knew from people who went to the Catholic school in my neighborhood, that it existed primarily to recruit people to the Protestant faith!

In the United States there is a longstanding unease about the First Amendment in many quarters. This is a historic tension that is never going to go away. There are some people who persist in believing that if their religion is not affirmed, then it is attacked. That is the strain that goes very deep in our culture, and I don’t believe it will ever be eradicated. It’s one of those issues in a democracy that you revisit and redefine again and again, and it is shot through the discussion of private school vouchers.

One thread that pulls all of this together is an economic thread; private school vouchers for some people are based not on a religious idea, but on an economic idea, primarily due to the thinking of a free-market economist named Milton Friedman, who proposed taxpayer-supported vouchers in 1954. Friedman wanted to get government out of the provision of education altogether. For him, vouchers funded by taxpayers were a transition to doing that. Under his conception, the government would provide a minimum education grant, in the form of a voucher for each child, and parents could then use those funds to send their child to any educational institution they wished: secular, nonsectarian, religious — any sort of educational institution.

This grant was to be what he called a “minimum grant.” Meaning that it was enough to provide some conception of a basic education that could be supplemented by parents who, for example, might want their children to receive remedial instruction in a particular subject, or might want their child to receive special art training, or study advanced mathematics. Obviously, under such a scheme, those parents who have the greatest resources can provide the greatest opportunities for their children. It’s an almost direct attack on the idea of public education as an institution that stands on the foundation of equality of opportunity, that every child comes into this world, regardless of their economic circumstance, equal under the law with the full rights and privileges that are conferred on every citizen.

Friedman’s ideas didn’t go very far when he first proposed them. The first application of vouchers in the United States was not based on Milton Friedman’s ideas. It followed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision declaring that separate was not equal, it was unconstitutional. There were two rulings in Brown. The 1954 decision is the historic decision, but it took over a year for the Supreme Court to issue the sort of implementation order that would be necessary in Brown v. Board of Education.

After that ruling, the political climate in the South was such that legislature after legislature attempted to pass what were called a variety of things, such as “scholarship programs” and “freedom of choice programs,” etc., all of which were designed for the express purpose of allowing white parents to take their children out of the public schools, and use tax dollars on any private or religious schools that they wished. They were looking and casting about for ways to meet the constitutional prohibition against separate but equal, and the way they attempted it was through vouchers.

In the South today, although the legal effort was not successful, you see all-African-American school systems that are public and all-white school systems that are private, with the tax base of the school system being controlled by the majority of the voters, who happen to be white. It’s no coincidence that some of the most decrepit public schools in the country are still found in the South. The idea of using vouchers is a holdover from the racist effort to segregate blacks and whites in the South.

When Lyndon Johnson came into office, there were a number of progressives who were enamored of the idea of choice and vouchers. Christopher Jenks, for example, a sociologist and a liberal, by most standard measures, came up with what he called a “regulated voucher plan.” This was a plan which more or less looked like a progressive income tax, with regard to educational vouchers. Those who had the least, got the most. The educational voucher wouldn’t be an absolute cash grant of the sort that Milton Friedman described, but if you were impoverished, you would get more money than if you were wealthier.

There was an attempt under the old Office of Economic Opportunity in the Johnson administration to experiment with these regulated vouchers in a public school setting, which is, on its face, unworkable. A voucher system inside a public school system –what does that mean? How do you work it? How do you move people between schools?

Many communities around the country were approached to experiment with this plan, including Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which turned down the opportunity to participate in this plan. There was only one school district in the country, in California, that tried it with results that were, for a variety of reasons, inconclusive and rather dismal. The idea disappeared.

When Richard Nixon took office he had a presidential commission taskforce on non-public education. They floated this cockamamie idea called parochiaid that was intended to provide, once again, public money to religious schools on the idea that they were providing a public benefit — educating children and contributing to the common good. Many people on the far right today talk about “government schools” and “state schools” because, in their lexicon, they are not public schools — the government is an alien presence. “The State” conjures up visions of the Stalinist gulag. (While many of you may have thought that your parents sent you to a “public school,” actually they were sending you to a Stalinist training camp!)

In any case, parochiaid was an attempt to funnel public money to sectarian institutions — primarily this would have been Catholic institutions. This was blocked for a lot of reasons, one of which was the Lemon v. Kurtzman decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971 that set up a three-part standard with regard to the government and its relationship to religious schools. The purpose had to be secular; it couldn’t be a sectarian purpose. It could neither promote nor disparage religion. And it could not, in their words, “excessively entangle” the government in religious matters. That ruling has stood for the past 25 years, but it is continually challenged.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president, his administration was a treasure-trove of failed ideas. They opened up a musty old chest and said, “How many bad ideas are there in the universe? Let’s try them all!”

Needless to say, Reagan’s administration pushed voucher plans three times. The last time, he attempted to tie vouchers to the Title One program, which is the Federal Education Act’s title designed to fund the education of children living in poverty. Reagan wanted to turn that provision of federal monies for children living in poverty into a voucher plan for poor children. It presages the rhetoric we’ve been hearing in Wisconsin and nationally for the last seven years. Reagan was unsuccessful in that. He then tapped into the political wind and began to talk about, and confuse, the issue of the private school vouchers with the issue of school choice, and began to make statements in support of “public school choice.” This effectively did two things; it began to associate him with not dismantling public education, but with reforming it, and it also identified him with magnet schools and other types of school reforms that had been proposed as a response to the need to desegregate, particularly in the northern states. So in one felt swoop, by changing his rhetoric and beginning to talk about public school choice, he picked up all of this wonderful, political aura that was positive, and the issue of separation of church and state was completely side-stepped.

This advocacy for public school choice came late in his second term and the position was picked up and carried on by George Bush when he ran for president in 1988. However, by the middle of George Bush’s term, around 1990, he had clearly shifted his focus. He had signed on Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, and together they proposed a private school voucher plan that they called the “GI Bill of Rights for Kids.”

Lamar Alexander is genuinely one of the more sleazy political figures of our generation. Some of us have the suspicion that this plan was, in fact, little more than an effort to help his friend, a man by the name of Christopher Whittle, who came up with Channel One and the Edison Project, which he was proposing at that time, to build a multi-billion dollar nationwide chain of for-profit schools. This nation-wide chain proposal would have benefited mightily from the availability of publicly-funded vouchers. There are some of us who think there was more than a grain of self-serving support for an old political ally and, by the way, Mr. Alexander was an investor in Mr. Whittle’s enterprises.

George Bush and Lamar Alexander were going around the country talking about a “GI Bill of Rights” for schools, saying nonsensical things like, “Well, the GI Bill was for GIs when they got out and some of them went to religious universities, so by golly, what’s wrong with 5, 7 and 9 year olds going to religious schools?” And, “People are concerned with crime and violence; they’re not concerned about whether a crucifix is on the wall.”

That was pretty much the Bush education platform by the time he left office. You could almost see him attempting to straddle two constituencies, which ultimately tore him apart. One was the “right-wing, neo-conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page” constituency. I mean, the loony right, and these are the private-school voucher folks. And then he was trying to have another foot in the camp of the corporate elite. These are the people who, on education matters and so on, are actually fairly enlightened. So you have right-winged populists on the one hand, which would have thrown public money to religious and private schools, and high-powered corporate executives, with lots of money, many suspenders, tasseled wing-tips, and Goals 2000, which represents national standards — which is anathema to the populist right, on the other. Old George Bush was trying to ride both of these horses into his second term, which he lost.

It was Bill Clinton who actually carried out Ronald Reagan’s public school choice advocacy. Clinton’s position now is actually what Reagan’s position was when he left office.

Now, I came to Milwaukee from Chicago. I came from a state which has always been reputed to have probably the most corrupt legislature in the North, to the progressive state of Wisconsin where the only thing you could accuse people of is liking cheese on their apple pie. I came up here thinking, “hot-diggety, progressive politics!” when all of the sudden I found myself in a cockpit of right-wing social engineering. How is it that Milwaukee had the country’s first publicly-funded voucher plan? How did the Wisconsin legislature pass an expansion of that program last year that included religious schools? How did it happen in Wisconsin? Because Wisconsin is now the focus of international attention. There’s a BBC reporter in Milwaukee right now looking at the choice program. The governor of Minnesota, Arne Carlson, visited Milwaukee and called it, to maintain the religious fervor, “the Mecca of Education Experimentation.” (I assume he brought his shawl and rug and bowed down before the Bradley Foundation.)

It happened because the agenda here is very complex. You have racial politics, big money right-wing politics. You have the Catholic schools — which were in desperate trouble before the voucher plan was passed.

In Milwaukee there are three well-established nonsectarian community schools in the inner city. These schools have been around for a long time and are quite popular in the communities that they serve, but they’ve always had a hand-to-mouth existence. Part of the 1990 legislation introduced in Wisconsin, despite all of the various rhetoric surrounding it now, was nothing more and nothing less than trying to provide a stable cash flow to these three community schools. In fact, 80% of the children in Milwaukee’s voucher program attend those schools to this day.

There’s a certain component in the Milwaukee voucher plan that’s nothing more than politicians bringing home the bacon for local constituents. There’s an enormous amount of discontent in the African-American community with the situation in Milwaukee, which is the most segregated Northern city. African-Americans are unemployed at six times the rate of whites in Milwaukee and the poverty level has gone up 125% in the African-American community within the last 14 years. This is a community that is being devastated by the market and by the social policy and political changes over the last 15 years. There’s an enormous popular support and discontent with public institutions of every sort and an enormous willingness to listen to the idea. As State Rep. Polly Williams and others in the African-American community put it, African-Americans need to be taught by African-Americans. To hell with the whites who have controlled these institutions for so long. Give us that public money and let our children go! That’s an an enormously appealing line.

Another part of the coalition that came together includes Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson and the right wing. The Bradley Foundation puts a lot of money into this. In fact, you can almost watch the dollar bills going into the pockets of almost every high-visibility voucher supporter in this country and in this state, from the Bradley Foundation — from Kenneth Starr, the special Watergate prosecutor who’s representing the State of Wisconsin in the court challenge (paid for by the Bradley Foundation), to Clint Bullock, the lead litigator (also paid for by the Bradley Foundation). How about PAVE (Parents Advancing Values in Education), which provides private scholarships for any religious or private school you want? PAVE originally entered the world as the Milwaukee Archdiocese and Education Fund, headed by Dan McKinley, and was transformed into this allegedly “nonsectarian” non-profit institution so that corporate executives, like the former chair of the quiet company, Western Mutual Life, and others like the Bradley Foundation could contribute to it and take a tax write-off. Most of the money comes from the Bradley Foundation and a handful of corporate heavy-hitters with an agenda.

The third leg in this is Wisconsin’s corporate community. The fact of the matter is we probably wouldn’t have an expansion of the voucher program in Wisconsin if it were not for the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. The expansion of the voucher program was written not by the Pope, not by Polly Williams, it was written by Susan Mitchell, under the pay of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. The draft language that was floated around and found its way into the Governor’s budget came from the corporate community.

Now, why would Milwaukee’s or Wisconsin’s corporate elite care about vouchers? Because in this state, over the last 20 years, businesses have been effective at reducing their tax liability. At the same time, the money to pay for public education has come out of the pockets of people who haven’t had a raise in about 20 years, and they can’t pay any more. Vouchers are a way of trying to contain the costs for which businesses might be liable, because if you had a fully-funded voucher plan in Wisconsin, two things would happen, kind of like the big-bang theory of the creation of the universe. If you had fully-funded voucher plan with no income caps and into which any parent and child could participate and any school would be eligible, if they so chose, sectarian or nonsectarian, you would immediately increase the cost of the educational status quo, because every child who now attends a religious or private school would have tax dollars behind her or him. The quality of education would be completely unaffected — that would be exactly as before, but your tax liability would be much greater. That’s the explosion part — you would suddenly incur this enormous tax liability. The contraction part of the big-bang metaphor is that in this political environment, you’re not going to get more money, which means that any given child who now attends a public school will have less money behind her or his education. This would be disastrous for the poorest among us. Now, the wealthy, the upper middle class, and perhaps even the middle class, could take that tax money and supplement it, just as Milton Friedman envisioned, and provide a decent education for their kids.

This is the social, economic and political agenda of corporate Wisconsin, the political and social agenda of the neo-conservative idealogues, such as Michael Joyce at the Bradley Foundation. This is not the agenda of the Catholic Church, although they support vouchers for religious schools. The point is that the money behind this is coming from people who don’t care about blowing a hole in the Constitution along the way to furthering their particular agenda. They are willing to sacrifice the First Amendment in order to carry the day for this Milton Friedman vision of education as a marketplace. If that means we provide money to religious schools, then so be it. And there’s the real danger. That’s why when Chris Ahmuty from the American Civil Liberties Union in Wisconsin stands up and talks about the separation of church and state, the First Amendment and so on, it is as if he is talking on an alien planet. The reason is because it seems so divorced from the every-day pressing problems that poor people and poor children face. This is exactly what cynical politicians like Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist prey upon.

The separation of church and state argument is not, by itself, rhetorically convincing in those settings. It has to be located in a context which explains also the economic and political agenda. You should understand that, because your concern for the First Amendment is a true concern for the First Amendment. But there are people who don’t care about it, not because they are going to attack the First Amendment per se, but because if it stands in the way, they are going to shove it aside. Those are the folks who are the enemies of the First Amendment, precisely because what they are doing is so insidious and concealed.

If you look at a map of Milwaukee and look at where the Catholic schools are, the Archdiocese has virtually shut down all of its inner city schools. There are two early childhood centers. The Catholic schools are predominantly on the southside and a couple other sections of the city that are predominantly white. What’s Mayor Norquist’s political base? The southside. It’s literally where he lives. I’m convinced that his support of public funding for children attending religious schools has to with his belief that he can somehow stabilize Milwaukee racially by doing that, in other words, to recreate the Catholic school system as a 1990s version of white-flight academies in the South. Who are the people with children in those schools now? They’re white parents. Who teaches in those schools? White teachers. Overwhelmingly so. There is a very cynical, political subtext cutting across the voucher debate at almost every level.

Last year Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation announced a million dollar grant to PAVE, after the Wisconsin State Supreme Court had enjoined the expansion of the Milwaukee program to include religious schools. He literally said, at the Holy Redeemer Church, that “the Lord God” had directed him to come to Rep. Polly Williams’ aid.

Your focus, and my focus, and our concern for the First Amendment are now caught up and immeshed in this kind of agenda. If you’re not involved in this struggle against private school vouchers, believe me, you should be. This is, in my view right now, the single biggest issue and the single biggest challenge to the First Amendment. I would urge you to join me in doing everything you can to oppose private school vouchers and aid to religious school through such schemes. It’s bad public policy in almost every way you look at it.

For more details and information on the corporate and religious drive to fund religious schools, read Prof. Alex Molnar’s latest enlightening and highly readable book, Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialization of America’s Schools,a hardcover 222-page book (Westview Press, 1996) available through the Freedom From Religion Foundation for $20 postpaid.

Alex Molnar has been professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1972. The nationally recognized opponent of vouchers is a consulting editor of Educational Leadership, the journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. His Changing Problem Behavior in Schools (1989) is widely used in schools. He has a B.A. in History, Political Science and Education, two Masters, and a Ph.D. in Urban Education. His columns appear in the Capital Times and Shepherd Express, and his commentaries appear regularly on the Milwaukee NPR affiliate. He hosted “Alex Molnar on Education,” a weekly show on Wisconsin Public Radio, from 1993-1995. He has been interviewed by national and international press on the subject of vouchers, and has appeared on “Sixty Minutes” and the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour.

Freedom From Religion Foundation