The Case Against School Vouchers
Tom Peters


In the last two decades religious conservatives have spent vast amounts of time and energy criticizing the public school system. Their litany of problems should be familiar to anyone that has read the conservative press: the schools don't do a good job of educating; they are "religion free zones;" they are indoctrinating children with the tenets of "secular humanism;" they are unsafe; they are hostile to family values; etc.

At least some of these charges are flatly untrue. More importantly, we find the religious right's favored solution to the problem, school vouchers, to be both constitutionally and practically unsound. In this section we examine voucher systems more closely, explain how they work, and why they should be opposed by anyone concerned with religious liberty and American education.

What are school vouchers?

School voucher systems come in a variety of flavors, but all of them involve the payment of state or federal money to the parents of private school children to offset the cost of tuition, books, or other educational expenses. Generally, these systems would give tuition vouchers to any parent that wants their child to attend a private school, religious or otherwise. According to voucher proponents, these reforms will help schools achieve academic excellence. Their argument goes something like this:

For all practical purposes, state and local governments have a monopoly on education. This monopoly stifles competition between schools, for at least two reasons. First, most public schools have a guaranteed enrollment. Most school systems, for example, assign children to schools on a geographical basis (if you live in neighborhood X, you will go to school Y). Accordingly, schools have no incentive to improve the quality of their education to attract students. Regardless of the quality of the education they provide, they will always be in demand.

Second, it's difficult to buy out of the public school system if you are dissatisfied with their product. If you're rich, of course, you can always send your children to private schools, but most parents find private school tuitions out of reach. Hence, only a small percentage of parents actually have the ability to opt out of the public school system. Again, this means that the public schools have no incentive to provide good education; since people can't opt out, they don't have to be concerned with the quality of the education they provide.

The solution, then, is to give parents maximum freedom to choose the school to which they send their children. This can be done by giving every parent a voucher that they can use to offset all or part of a private school tuition. They simply turn the voucher over to the private school, and the school redeems the voucher for a specified amount of money. By increasing the parent's ability to choose alternatives to public education, it will force the public schools to compete for students against private schools. This will force the schools to offer best education possible, at least if they want to stay in business.

We note that the argument we've given above is not by any means the most extreme offered by religious conservatives. Some religious conservatives have seriously argued that the public school system should be abolished so that all schools will become, in effect, private.

Since each private school charges its own tuition, and since most voucher system proposals would set the worth of the voucher at a specified level, there is no guarantee that a voucher will completely cover the cost of private education. At an inexpensive school, a voucher will cover much of the cost of tuition. At an expensive school, a voucher will make no difference at all to the poor parent.

Additionally, we note that many voucher systems would be financed by corresponding reductions in public school funding. A recent California proposal, for example, set the worth of a voucher at the average amount spent per pupil in the California system. The proposal would have subtracted that amount from the California school system for each student opting out of the public system for private schools. Hence, the proposal was a direct transfer of funds from the public systems to private schools.

Are school vouchers needed?

Religious and secular conservatives generally offer two arguments on behalf of vouchers. The first is that it is unjust to force private school parents to also contribute to the public schools through their taxes (the so-called "double taxation" argument). The second is that the public schools are in a state of crisis that requires the voucher "solution." We think that these arguments are either false or misleading. Below, we explain why.

(Editors note: the following links are to the Separation of Church and State page)

Are school vouchers constitutional?

In a word, no, at least when they are used to pay for sectarian education. Vouchers, since they involve direct government funding of private school tuition, violate the Constitution whenever the private school involved uses this money to pay for religious instruction.

Since the passage of the 14th Amendment the Supreme court has gradually made most of the Bill of Rights applicable to the states. The states, in other words, must now obey the guarantees embodied in the Bill of Rights, including the Constitutional prohibition against establishment of religion. This article explains the history of Supreme Court decisions relevant to school vouchers since the passage of the 14th Amendment.

Briefly, our position is that, even though the Supreme Court has not gone far enough in enforcing the prohibition of religious establishment (note our criticisms below), there is no question that, on the basis of the law, voucher systems and other schemes for providing direct financial aid to religious schools are unconstitutional.

Research and writing by Susan Batte

After the Fourteenth Amendment made the Establishment Clause applicable to the states, the Supreme Court became the final arbiter of whether states could support religious schools through either direct or indirect funding. Before the Court could even reach this controversy, however, it first had to decide cases that arose as a result of the public right to educate all children colliding with a parent's private right to educate his child as he deemed appropriate (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 1925).

This collision occurred because most states had adopted compulsory attendance laws by the early part of the 20th Century. These laws required all children to attend state approved schools. In real terms, this meant that children could only attend public schools or schools approved by the local school board. If a child was attending a private or non-public school, his parents would be in violation of this law and subject to penalty. The court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters declared that the compulsory attendance law was an unconstitutional violation of the parents' due process rights under the Fourteenth amendment.

It is important to note that this case was not decided under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Instead, the Court used the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which says that "no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." The Court in Pierce found that a parent's liberty interest in sending his child to the school of his choice trumped a state's right to require all children to be educated in state approved public schools. The method for bringing in line religious schools was to require that they meet state standards for education and they not be harmful to the child.

The next step in the development of Establishment Clause jurisprudence also involved the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Once religious schools became constitutional alternatives to public education, the parents who chose to send their children to private schools demanded direct aid to support their choice. Proponents of aid to parochial schools argued that it was unfair to tax parents to fund public schools when they had to pay for their child's private education out of their own pockets. This, they argued, constituted a taking of property without due process.

In addition, parents of parochial students argued that they should receive certain types of indirect aid because it benefitted the student (not the school). Free text books, transportation, school lunches, and medical and health benefits, did not help the sectarian school, so parents argued. These programs were general welfare programs made available to all children. Private school children should not be excluded on the basis of their choice of school.

Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education (1930) took up the issue of indirect aid to parochial school children. Louisiana passed a law which would provide secular text books to all children regardless of whether they were enrolled in secular or sectarian schools. The plaintiffs challenged the law again using the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment instead of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. The plaintiffs argued that the state was taking the taxpayers' money and using it for a private purpose - to fund parochial schools. The Court appeared to adopt the child benefit theory, though, and found that the sectarian schools in no way benefitted from the purchase. Secular school books were allowed in the parochial school. It should be noted that Louisiana had a large Catholic population which could account for this early sectarian victory.

In Everson v. Board of Education (1947) not only did the Supreme Court find for the parochial school using the child benefit theory to uphold public transportation for parochial school children, this time the Court did so by using the Establishment Clause. The Court held that providing bus transportation to parochial students fulfills a general welfare concern of providing for all school children's safety. The outcome seems to strike a mighty blow for anti-separationists. Fortunately for separationists, however, this same Everson opinion written by Justice Hugo Black also delivered strong separationist language which foreshadowed subsequent Court decisions. In particular, Black noted:

The First Amendment of the Constitution means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.... No tax in any amount large or small can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.

Black's separationist language is incongruent with the Court's finding that a state can providing public transportation to parochial school children. The bus plan definitely aids all religions which happen to have schools. The aid provided to parochial schools is in the form of taxpayer dollars appropriated for public transportation. The activity which is funded is the transportation of children to a school where religious indoctrination is a part of the curriculum. The finding that child benefit trumps First Amendment seems contrived.

The Court did concede that a state could refuse to supply public transportation non-public school children, which at least acknowledges that the Court felt on some level that such aid was establishing or supporting a religion. The Court also conceded that a state could not provide support just to parochial schools alone. In Everson, the plan was to benefit children of public and non-public schools, and of the non-public schools, both religious and non-religious. Had the aid been offered to religious schools only, then the Establishment Clause would have been violated.

In Board of Education v. Allen (1968) the Court upheld a NY law which required the state to provide sectarian schools with secular text books. This case, too, was decided using the child benefit theory. The Court decided that the books did not benefit the religious school in spite of the fact that the religious schools were now relieved from the burden of buying the books themselves or the risk losing the tuition of students who would not have been able to also bear book costs. In either case, the Court did not find this indirect aid to the religious school to be violative of the Establishment Clause.

States then attempted to enact a plan to pay teachers to teach secular subjects at parochial schools. This time the Supreme Court found that such a plan did violate the Establishment Clause (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971). Justice Burger reasoned states would have to become "excessively entangled" with the affairs of the parochial schools that hired secular teachers in reviewing and possibly approving or disapproving the secular teacher's lesson plans.

The Lemon three part test of constitutionality is:

  1. Does the law have a secular purpose?
  2. Is the primary effect of the law to advance religion?
  3. Does the law foster excessive government entanglement in religion?

While the Lemon Test has come under some recent Supreme Court criticism, it remains perhaps the best statement of the principle of separation of church and state as it exists today.

Arguments based on Child benefit shifted to Parent benefit, and non-public school parents shifted their focus to obtain money grants, tuition reimbursement, and funds for administering tests. This time, proponents of parochial schools were not as successful. Public Education and Religious Liberty (PEARL) v. Nyquist (1973) (money grants), Sloan v. Lemon (1973) (tuition reimbursement), and Levitt v. PEARL (1973) (testing) all decided on the same day held that providing such benefits violated the Establishment Clause.

These programs are most like the voucher programs anti-separationists ask for today, and the Court found that this type of aid is exactly what the First Amendment was designed to prohibit:

Attention was turned then back to child benefit arguments, and the Supreme Court again found indirect aid to parochial schools constitutional. In Wheeler v. Barrera (1974), the Supreme Court ruled that if a state receives funds under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to provide services to disadvantaged students attending public school, the state also has to provide such aid to students in private schools, This meant the state would have to provide services to sectarian schools even though its constitution strictly prohibited such aid as an Establishment of religion. The only alternative to violating their state constitution was for the state was to refuse to take any funds from Title I for the purpose of aiding disadvantaged students.

Since Wheeler, the Supreme Court has struck down aid in the form of equipment and materials, Meek v. Pittenger (1975), instructional field trips, Wolman v. Walter (1977), and upheld the aid for the administration of state prepared standardized tests, Pearl v. Regan (1977). (Regan differed from Levitt in that Levitt wanted funds to help the sectarian teachers administer tests for their own classes. Regan provided funds only for administering state prepared tests, so there was no chance that the state would be sponsoring tests that discussed religion).

In Mueller v. Allen the Court revisited the question of whether tax benefits designed to reimburse parents of school-age children for tuition, textbooks and transportation could constitutionally be extended to parents of children attending sectarian school. This state law provided a tax deduction to parents of children attending either public or non-public school, and Justice Rehnquist eagerly found that the purpose of the law was not to benefit parochial schools or the parents of children attending such schools.

Rehnquist believes the wall of separation of church and state to be a myth, bad history and bad law, so his interest in validating the Mueller plan could have been motivated by his desire to re-write what he thinks is bad law. The appeal to Rehnquist of the Mueller plan, then, was three-fold: the law had the purpose of promoting the goal of educating all children, and not of advancing religion by aiding parochial schools. There was no excessive entanglement of state with religion. And the law provided that parents could not receive reimbursement for religious textbooks thereby remaining consistent with past Supreme Court cases.

In reality, thought, Mueller does appear to violate the Establishment Clause. As the dissent succinctly points out, only in the rarest circumstances did public schools require parents to pay tuition, buy textbooks or pay for transportation. Reimbursement, therefore, effectively only benefitted only non-public school parents, some of whom sent their children to religious schools.

Just when Mueller made it seem as though the Court was backing off from its Lemon v. Kurtzman decision, it handed down decisions in two cases, Grand Rapids v. Ball (1985) and Aguilar v. Felton (1985) supporting the separation of church and state doctrine.

Handed down on the last day of the 1984 Term, Grand Rapids and Aguilar reinforced previous Supreme Court precedent that barred government from providing direct or indirect financial aid to parochial schools for instruction in nonreligious subjects, teachers in parochial school classrooms regardless of educational purpose, subsidies for remedial education services that were otherwise available to children in public schools, or to help defray the cost of public schools. ... [T]he Court continued to hold on to its well-articulated principle that all forms of government financial assistance to religious schools, regardless of their legislative sources, which served to promote or advance religious objectives, or threatened to create excessive entanglement between government and religion, were unconstitutional (Ivers, Lowering the Wall, 1991, p. 42).

In Grand Rapids, the school district offered classes to nonpublic school students at classrooms leased at nonpublic schools and taught by teachers who were hired by the school district. Such a program had several problems. First, paying teachers to teach in religious schools might result in a public employee promoting religion. Second, the Court feared close relationship of church and state would send the message that the state endorsed a religion. Third, the program failed because it effectively turned over a part of the private school's curriculum to the public schools. (Grand Rapids, 473 U.S. at 396-397).

In Aguilar, New York desired to pay public employees to teach in parochial schools pursuant to the previously mentioned Title I program. In Wheeler, aid to parochial schools was allowed if such aid were offered to both public and nonpublic schools. Challenges to Title I programs continued to be raised even after Wheeler (Ivers, p. 43). By the time the Court decided Aguilar, however, a majority felt that the New York Title I program advanced religion because church school and government had to cooperate too closely in running the program. The state was required to monitor the school programs to make sure no religious instruction was taking place, and the taxpayers who initiated the suit argued that this entanglement went against the Court's decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman (Aguilar, 473 U.S. at 412).

Two conclusions follow from this look at case law. First, it appears that when parochaid schemes have been found constitutional, it is because the aid in question is secular in character and does not significantly entangle state with church. Second, it is clear that voucher systems meet neither of these standards. Voucher money, in most cases, pays for a religious education. It puts the state in the position of financing religious indoctrination. It directly entangles church and state, and where it has been considered by the Supreme Court, it has been rejected.

We don't agree on everything the Court has done with respect to its interpretation of the First Amendment. We think that it has approved some types of aid to religious schools that should not have been approved. But even on the most accomodationist reading of these cases, school voucher systems are illegal.

Will school vouchers work?

Putting aside this issue of whether vouchers are needed, or whether they are constitutional, we propose here to answer a third question: Do voucher systems improve education?

Voucher proponents argue that market forces under the system will force the public schools to compete against private schools, which will improve the level of education. In fact, there is little if any evidence that such competition will occur or that such competition will improve the quality of schools. Consider the following:

[Note: In the past year one team of educational researches has concluded that the scores of students participating in the Milwaukee choice program did improve relative to students that did not enroll in the program (A Critique of "The Effectiveness of School Choice in Milwaukee: A Secondary Analysis of Data From the Program's Evaluation, Jay Greene, Paul Peterson and Jiangtao Du). This study has been criticized on a number of substantive grounds. In particular, the effect reported in the study disappears when relevant background variables are controled, many of its results are statistically insignificant, and the authors sampled an inadequate number of students. [There is] a collection of hypertext material on the Green, Peterson, and Du study housed at the American Federation of Teachers website. Note especially the critiques authored by the AFT, and noted educational researchers John Witte and Peter Cookson. We think these critiques effectively destroy the study's conclusions.]

Nor would voucher program be fair to the poor, the disadvantaged, the poor student, or the "undesirables." Under voucher programs private schools are allowed to choose their own students. The evidence is overwhelming that private schools screen for the best students, and for students that "fit the mold" of the student body they want to recruit. Low achieving students (who are more likely to be poor and disadvantaged) have little chance of being accepted at private schools that want academically superior student bodies. Many parents transfer their children to private schools to escape discipline problems in the public schools; how likely is it that private schools will admit students that are perceived to be discipline problems? Many religious private schools consciously attempt to maintain a sectarian social character; parents that are not of the favored religion of the school will not stand the same chance of gaining admittance as parents of the favored religion.

Our point, in other words, is that a good deal of the "choice" under voucher systems is the school's, not the parent's. Under a voucher system no parent is assured of getting into the school they desire. On the contrary, poor students are likely to be excluded from schools in which they desire to enroll. The effect of vouchers, in other words, is to force some parents to pay for the educations of children at school at which they have no hope of enrolling. Indeed, in the Milwaukee experiment, the best non-sectarian schools chose not to participate in the program; low-income students simply did not interest them. In a full scale voucher program these differences would surely persist, which will magnify, not decrease, current discrepancies between social classes.

© 1996

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