America, too, “Was” Statist

Public financing to families for their children’s education At the end of June, the Supreme Court ruled that school vouchers are constitutional, enabling students to attend private schools without violating the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state. To be sure, the political battle will be a fiery one


This will be an autumn of battles on the school front in the United States. Politicians, pressure groups, and unions spent the summer studying a 98-page sentence, deposited, to widespread surprise, by the Supreme Court of the United States June 27, the last day of work for the nine most important judges in America before breaking for the summer. The sentence, which passed by a tormented 5-4 vote rife with polemical aftermath, had the effect of reawakening from its months of lethargy the movement for school reform in America, which had been left half-paralyzed after September 11, 2001, while the country concentrated on the war on terrorism.

The Supreme Court wrote a page of history by ruling that school vouchers are constitutional, and that giving families public money to enable their children to attend private schools does not violate the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state. What is more, the justices established that favoring the choice of the kind of school to have children attend has nothing to do with religion–even though the vast majority of private educational institutions in the United States are run by churches–whereas it has a great deal to do with the key word of all of American history, from the time of the Declaration of Independence to today: freedom. School vouchers, according to the Supreme Court justices, do not put the government in the unconstitutional position of promoting religion, because it is the families who decide from a broad range of public, private, or religious schools.

Ready for take-off
The sentence immediately set the reform machinery in motion. The Court ruled on a specific case, that of the city of Cleveland, Ohio, but the consequences of what has been called one of the most important decisions in the United States in the last fifty years will be felt throughout the country. Members of Congress from at least eight states–California, Texas, Colorado, Minnesota, Arizona, Indiana, Virginia, and Utah–spent the summer presenting bills that could open the path to vouchers within a year or so. Florida, the state governed by Jeb Bush, the brother of the president of the United States, already has the only state legislation that provides vouchers for study, but until now it has been little more than an experiment. The seal of constitutionality set by the most authoritative court in the country will now cause the program of local vouchers to take off. And even the White House, whose attention has been distracted up to now by Osama Bin Laden, is beginning to move.

George W Bush made vouchers a battle cry during the 2000 presidential campaign, but as soon as he arrived in the Oval Office he had to give in to a Congress that had no intention of leaving him an open path on this issue, insisting on the unconstitutionality of public financing of families for private schools (an objection which has now been wiped out by the Supreme Court). The President intended to give up to $1,500 in federal funds to each family who chose private education and took its children out of public schools that were failing. Now the idea has re-emerged in the White House, in the form of a proposal, for 2003, of tax breaks worth $2,500 per family. Bush reacted emphatically to the sentence on the Cleveland case: “The Supreme Court,” said the President, “has offered the hope of educational excellence to the parents and children of the entire country. This sentence clears the path for other innovative programs of school choice, so that no child in America will be left behind.”

Large numbers
The political battle looks to be a fiery one, and in all probability will follow along the same lines as the ones that emerged within the Supreme Court, whose nine justices reflect the ideas of the entire range of cultural positions coexisting in the United States. The choices will involve an educational panorama marked by large numbers. During the 1999-2000 school year, there were 46.9 million students in public schools and 5 million in private schools in America. A very large slice of the private-school world is run by agencies connected with the Catholic Church. However, the Church is encountering greater and greater hardships in maintaining her presence (and the enormous damages being paid for the sexual abuse scandal certainly cannot help matters). In 2001, for example, fifty new Catholic schools opened in the United States, but ninety were closed.

The Court was called to decide on the constitutionality of Cleveland’s voucher program, which permits the city to give low-income families up to $2,250 per child to enable them to attend private schools, the only ones guaranteeing decent standards of education in a city with one of the worst public school systems in America. The objection raised by those contrary to vouchers was that in practice it is a way of financing religious organizations, since 95% of the private schools participating in the program are connected with churches.

The best education possible
But the justices clearly established for the first time that speaking of private schools does not necessarily mean speaking of public sponsorship of religion. “No reasonable observer,” wrote Chief Justice of the Court, William H Rehnquist, in the majority opinion signed also by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonio Scalia, Anthony M Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas, “can think that a neutral program of private choice, in which state aid reaches religious schools exclusively as the result of the numerous independent decisions made by private individuals, brings with it the imprimatur of government support of churches.” Justice Thomas, one of the most conservative members of the Court, was even harsher, accusing voucher opponents of reasoning “according to the Romantic ideal of universal public education,” to the detriment of low-income families “who simply want the best education for their children, who will certainly need it in order to succeed in our advanced, highly technological society.”

The four minority justices, giving a voice to an anti-voucher movement that until today could hide behind the shield of the presumed unconstitutionality of vouchers, and now finds it has been thrown off-balance, were no less harsh. Liberal Justice John Paul Stevens called up the specters of the “religious disorders” in the Balkans, northern Ireland, and the Middle East, to put America on guard: “Every time we take a brick out of the wall that was created to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious uprisings and weaken the foundations of our democracy.”

The reactions of people in the field of education were characterized by a common awareness that the sentence reopens the terms of discussion. “The debate will change now, there will be bills presented, hearings, all sorts of legislative activity throughout the whole country,” predicted David Brennan, a Cleveland lawyer who is one of the promoters of the voucher program. “The political battles are destined to grow larger and more violent,” added Michael Guerra, president of the National Catholic Educational Association.

The case of Jonathan
Teachers’ unions, who fear the public schools will suffer if greater resources are destined to private schools, are sharpening their knives. “Vouchers are a terrible policy for education,” said Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

The real problem, for supporters of school vouchers, will be to find the money to ensure efficient programs in a country forced to make cuts in order to face the economic crisis and the cost of the military action now going on or about to be enacted. But even in an America that has to watch its pennies, it will be hard to avoid dealing not only with the sentence of the Court, but also the stories of children whose lives have been changed by vouchers. This is the case of Jonathan Galloway, a 13-year-old boy from Pensacola, Florida, who, despite high grades in school up to two years ago when he attended public elementary schools, had reached middle school barely knowing how to read (and he is not an isolated case). Now Jonathan attends Sacred Heart Cathedral School, financed by a voucher, and according to his mother Cassandra, his attitude toward studying has completely changed: “Now,” she says, “he takes those big Harry Potter books to school… But above all, he has begun to feel good about himself and to have self-confidence.”