How You End up Paying for Religious Schools Without Knowing It
"Choice" is such a nice word that everybody wants to have it on their side.
"Choice" is also a fuzzy word, which may be why Mitt Romney is willing to call himself a supporter of "school choice". In the strange language of education politics, "choice" sometimes means advocating the partial privatization of school systems through charter schools – which Romney supports. It can also indicate support for voucher programs, which is another thing altogether – and which Romney is said also to support.
Charter schools are constrained by the same laws and policies that, for example, prohibit public schools from endorsing religion. Vouchers, on the other hand, allow parents to use public money to pay for private, mostly religious schools that are largely unaccountable to the public. So, for example, a voucher school may use your taxpayer dollars to teach its students that the earth is 6,000 years old. And a number of such schools now do just that.
You don't have to be a constitutional scholar to get that using public money to fund religious schools violates the letter and spirit of the first amendment. Even the radical conservatives in today's Federalist Society would agree that the US constitution would not allow the government to cut a check to, say, the local mosque in exchange for supplying education to local schoolchildren. That is why they invented "vouchers": by pushing the "choice" to use government money to subsidize religion down to the parents, the government can fund religious schools while pretending that it is not.
The strategy of calling something what it isn't begins at the top. In the Zelman v Simmons-Harris decision of 2002, the conservative majority of the US supreme court lined up in a 5-4 decision to rule that an Ohio vouchers program did not violate the clause of the first amendment that prohibits the government from establishing religion, even though 96% of the students in the program wound up in religiously affiliated schools. The majority claimed that since the parents were free to choose among a variety of schools, the state was not involved in any establishment of religion. In his dissent, Justice Souter observed:
"This result violates every objective the establishment clause has ever been thought to serve."
In 2011, the supreme court once again used linguistic trickery to strike a blow to the separation of church and state. A group of Arizona taxpayers brought suit against their state for a program that used tax credits as means of delivering money from the government to the religious schools of parents' choice. But the five conservatives on the court argued back that since the program relied on a tax credit to individuals, the plaintiffs' taxes themselves were not being used for the program – and so they had no standing to sue. Justice Kagan noted that the garbled reasoning behind the majority decision would make it impossible for any taxpayer to object to government support of religion.
The supreme court decisions helped to set the stage for the present voucher renaissance, but the real action is in the statehouses, where dozens of voucher bills have passed or are up for a vote. In many states, the path to voucherdom follows a carefully plotted route designed to circumvent pesky first amendment concerns. Some of the first voucher programs are aimed at disabled children. After all, who would want to stop disabled children from seeking private education where the state schools are unable to help them?
From the disabled, the programs then expand to cover low-income students and regions. The answer to the problem of grossly underfunded public schools in low-income areas, evidently, is to give them even less money. The long-term vision is to raise the definition of "low-income" to the point where everyone who wants to can funnel public money to their favorite religious academy.