Supreme Court Approves Funding for Private Schools

Vouchers for Religious Schools: Dangerous Education

Revolutionary Worker #1158, July 14, 2002, posted at

On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an ominous new ruling that threatens to greatly strengthen the power of conservative religious forces in the U.S. In a surprise decision, the court ruled that government tax money can be used to finance private religious schools.

The decision, in a case called Zelman v. Harris-Simmons , upheld a government scheme in Ohio that had allowed private religious schools in Cleveland to receive up to $2,250 a year in tax money (called "vouchers") for each student who left the public schools.

The same aggressively conservative Supreme Court majority that handed the White House to George W. Bush in 2000 is now offering the minds of the next generation to the priests and preachers.

This threatens to further undermine secular (non-religious) education--and further ghettoize those who remain in the public school system. The court's ruling was hailed by the Bush administration and the Republican Party, which have long advocated a voucher system for privatizing education.

This Zelman ruling is a sharp departure from the doctrine of "separation of church and state"--which previous Supreme Courts said was based in the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The previous Supreme Court ruling on this topic, called Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing,said in 1947: "No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions..."

This Supreme Court legalization of vouchers will unleash extreme conservative forces in an energized country-wide assault on public education, and it will promote a new offensive against progressive and scientific thinking. It marks a major victory for the forces of the Christian-fascists, and provides an opening for a wholesale state financing of their indoctrination and institutions.

What the legalization of vouchers will not do is improve the education and opportunities for the masses of people in the inner cities. In fact, it will strengthen the power of extreme reactionary forces who are die-hard enemies of social change and liberation.

The Attack on Public Schools

"They have caused the public schools to fail, now they move in with an awful `solution.'...The voucher system is the most vicious possible device by which to enable affluent people and middle class people to flee the public system and to bring tax money with them into the private sector.

"A $1,000 voucher, or even a $2,500 voucher, what will that buy a person? Can you buy tuition to Andover or Exeter or any other good prep school for that? Of course not. What can you do with that money? Well, if you're affluent, you could use that money to subsidize Andover tuition. If you're marginal middle class, that might just tip the balance and give you enough to pull off the tuition of a middle-grade private or parochial school. But if you're the poorest of the poor, you can't buy anything with $1,000. It's a sham to pretend to offer something to the poor when you're really offering a means for the middle class to rescue their children from the taint of the poor. The way I've heard it described is `save the best, and warehouse the rest.' What I find particularly bitter is that so many of the voucher advocates say, `Well, look. If these inner-city public schools were doing a good job, then we wouldn't be talking about vouchers.' ... But this is very cynical because the very same people who say this are the ones who voted for the politicians who starved our schools of adequate finances."

Jonathan Kozolauthor of Savage Inequalities: Children In America's Schools

Reactionary forces in the U.S. hate the idea of a common, secular public education system for many different reasons. They see public schools as a vehicle for racial integration. They believe that introducing kids to scientific teachings on evolution and sexuality threatens fundamentalist religious dogmas. They believe that public school teachers often promote progressive ideas about women's equality, birth control, sex education, critical thinking and a wide range of other issues. And the political right wing has long seen the national teachers' unions as powerful political machines supporting liberal social programs.

Over the last 50 years, forces within the ruling class have funded a movement to "privatize" education--to break up the public schools and expand the role of religious schools. The key to this has been demanding state financing of their religious indoctrination through a system of so- called "vouchers"--where the state gives private schools tax funds that were raised for public schools.

The voucher system is promoted using the misleading term "parental choice"--which supposedly means that the use of state vouchers would allow more parents to choose whether to send their kids to public or private schools.

The voucher system was first proposed by the rightwing free-market economist Milton Friedman in the early 1950s. Friedman's argument was that imposing a "free market" into education would "increase competition" and improve results--as if kids are just one more product of capitalist economics.

This voucher scheme was immediately used as a weapon against school desegregation. Jonathan Kozol points out in a recent interview: "The first time I heard of `schools of choice,' it was after the Brown decision in the 1950s, when schools in many Southern states set up `schools of choice'-- that was the word. They called them Freedom of Choice Schools as a ploy to avoid desegregation. That's the history."

The first "parental choice" program was developed in Prince Edwards County, Virginia, where the state government tried to help white racists fund a private segregated school system opposed to the increasingly integrated public schools.

Throughout the South, die-hard racists created networks of private "Christian academies"--where they could control who got in and continue to impose prayer and their religious dogmas. Over 30 years, Christian academies have grown to about 25% of the private schools in the U.S. overall. This does not include private Catholic schools, which remain the largest religious school systems in urban areas.

The problem for the private school movement was that without state funding, they could not undermine and replace the publicly funded school systems. U.S. courts prevented state funding of private religious schools. Until now.

As the forces of the Religious Right have been elevated into increasingly powerful posts within the political system, public education has been systematically allowed to fall apart in poor neighborhoods and inner cities.

In urban public schools, teachers are typically faced with impossibly overcrowded classrooms--they are often burnt out and terribly underpaid. Facilities, textbooks, equipment are often extremely underfunded and out-of-date. Residential segregation and tracking by economic class concentrate the poorer kids in certain schools, where they are routinely neglected, abused and shoved out onto the street--while wealthier public schools in the suburbs get massively more funds, enabling them to pay more to attract teachers, etc.

It is a game similar to the destruction of public housing: First the authorities allow the public facilities to decay into hellish conditions, then they say the institution is a failure and should be dismantled.

The voucher movement has gained powerful support in recent years: Big capitalist interests working to gentrify the inner cities are demanding new educational systems (separate from the often Black and Latino public schools) that can serve upper class residents moving into urban areas. Conservative political forces want to break up the public schools as part of their efforts to take over the cities--by weakening the urban Democratic political machines built upon school bureaucracies. The current White House team supported vouchers during their campaign for the presidency.

Meanwhile, the voucher movement recruited some forces in the Black community willing to sign on to the voucher movement--in the last years they have found such support among some aspiring-middle class Black parents who believe vouchers will benefit their kids, among some Black preachers who hope the state funding of "faith-based initiatives" will increase their operations, and even among sections of the masses who are so disgusted with the public schools that they think "anything would be better than this."

Two major obstacles have faced this voucher movement: first, the legal doctrine of "separation of church and state" and second, the fact that it has remained deeply unpopular among the population.

On June 27, the Supreme Court majority knocked a huge hole in constitutional doctrine and unleashed the political forces seeking to destroy public education.

What This Will Mean

"I would hope that state and local governments across the country will move quickly to pass school choice legislation now that the justices have issued a green light."

Congressman J. Dennis Hastert, Speaker of U.S. House of Representatives

The Supreme Court ruling on school vouchers means that, for the next period, the central education issue in bourgeois politics will be the privatization and destruction of public education--not its improvement!

There will be a series of political struggles, state by state, over whether to give public school funds over to religious schools. It is not yet clear where vouchers will be passed, or where they will be defeated.

If these proposals succeed, it will promote the creation of new, state-supported, conservative religious school systems, opposed to the public schools, in many places across the country.

This is a major power grab by extreme conservative and religious forces--backed from the heights of the White House and Supreme Court. Protestant fundamentalists and the increasingly conservative Catholic hierarchy have been given a huge new opening to grab government funds for their operations and to take over the education of millions of kids in many parts of the country.

This strengthens the Religious Right in their campaign to establish harsh, reactionary religious values and dogmas as the official norms of the larger culture.

And, at the same time, when state money flows into church programs, this gives the government apparatus unprecedented new power over religious organizations--including those churches that have played an important role in the life and struggle of the Black community.

The Hard Truth About Vouchers

In a cruel hoax, parents in the inner city are told that vouchers will mean their kids can get a better education. The picture is painted of poor families finally getting government help to put their kids in private schools, where middle class kids have often gotten smaller classes and better conditions.

Some Questions: What will really happen if vouchers go through? Has a "competitive free market" in health care, housing or food distribution produced better conditions for the poor? Or has it produced more "tiers" of cruel discrimination and inequality-- including ghetto markets and slums?

Consider this: About $4,000 a year is spent on public school kid's education in Mississippi, about $6,000 in Philadelphia and about $8,000 a year for each kid in the South Bronx. Meanwhile $18,000-$24,000 a year are often spent on each kid in wealthy suburbs.

Some Questions: If a poor kid shows up at some private school with a $500 voucher (or even a $2,500 voucher), will it buy them a first class education? How much more would their family be asked to pay and where would that come from?

Consider this: The voucher system is intended to create separate school systems--where the private systems can accept or expel students based on any academic, financial or religious rules they want.

Ask yourself: Who will benefit from the selective enrollment? When has selective enrollment in the U.S. ever produced equal opportunity and real integration? Where will there be schooling for kids with special problems--those who have fallen behind, gotten "into trouble," have physical illnesses or language difficulties? What kind of education will be offered to kids who are atheist and who resist religious training? Where will many of the best teachers go?

And those few proletarian kids who manage to "escape" to private schools--how will they be treated? Will their culture and community be respected by the guardians of Western Civilization and the so-called "Judeo-Christian traditions"? And what will education be like for their brothers and sisters left behind in the public school system that is left to deteriorate?

Wealthy families will definitely be able to use vouchers to help with their private school bills. A few more middle class families may be able to scrimp and save to get their kids through a separate middle class private school system. Meanwhile the masses of poor kids and kids with learning "problems" will remain packed together in worsening public schools. With vouchers, the rich will get educated and poor kids will be even further ghettoized.

In short, the vouchers would not give parents a real "choice" in education. Under capitalism, significant personal choices come first to those with lots of money. But this voucher court decision will give the ruling class the choice of funding a more conservatized, stratified, privatized educational system allowing tighter control over the youth and new systems for unequal education.

That Old Time Religion:A Dangerous Indoctrination

"A virtuous woman is hard to find."

Inscription on "Christian Athlete of the Year" trophy,Free Will Baptist Christian School, North Carolina

The voucher system aims at changing the content of education for a large section of the population--allowing awful and oppressive religious doctrines to be taught to kids.

One federal court found that the Cleveland voucher program funded daily religious classes and that the state-funded religious schools combined "Christian doctrines with science and language arts classes."

Some people think this may not be a bad thing. Some believe their kids would benefit from more religious training and morality--and hope it will give them the "moral character" to resist the "destructive pressures of ghetto life." Some people hope that their kids might learn more --if "problem kids" could be expelled more easily, and if the "fear of god" were pounded into their heads.

Let's get clear: people are not poor and oppressed because they don't have "moral character." The system--that exploits people, drives them into hopeless situations and then denies them a way out--is to blame. It is insulting and absurd for this shameful system to accuse those it oppresses of lacking "moral character."

Second, people need clear values, discipline and morality to liberate themselves --but not the values of conservative religion. Christianity, Islam and Judaism all traditionally teach obedience to authority, passive acceptance of the social order, and narrow focus on family and personal success. These are values that hurt the struggle we must wage, together, to change the world.

Bringing those religious values into schools is a dangerous education--that would strengthen the hand of our oppressors.

A Question: What will happen when key pillars of science like evolution conflict with church doctrines? What will kids learn about birth control, or abortion, or the equality of women? In a curriculum centered on the power of god, what will children learn about their own power to change the world?

A Question: Is there any reason to have illusions about the virtue or wisdom of the church authorities? After all that we now know about child abuse in the Catholic Church, why would anyone demand turning more kids over to priests and bishops?


Consider this: Professor Frances Patterson gathered textbooks used in thousands of fundamentalist Christian schools. Here are some of the teachings she uncovered:

 From a senior high school history textbook from Bob Jones University Press: "The majority of slaveholders treated their slaves well."

 A high school civics text by the same publisher: "Today when homosexuals call their sin a `sexual preference' that deserves constitutional protection, or abortionists call the destroying of unborn life a freedom of choice, they are simply calling evil good."

 From a textbook by the School of Tomorrow/Accelerated Christian Education: "Scripture plainly teaches that widows, the needy, and others who cannot provide for themselves are to have their needs met [but] God's plan is for these needs to be met first by family members and then by local churches, but not by government."

An observer at the Free Will Baptist Christian School described how students could be beaten with paddles if reading bible passages didn't change their behavior. He added: "Creationism is taught in science class first, and then evolution is discussed as a competing theory."

The religious school movement and vouchers were designed to reverse progressive verdicts in society on equality, scientific thinking, sexuality and tolerance.

The Education That Is Needed

The arch-reactionary Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas defended his pro- voucher vote by quoting the great African-American leader Frederick Douglass: "Education means emancipation."

But, in fact, Frederick Douglass did not preach to Black slaves that they would educate their way to freedom! He helped organize an armed struggle of runaway slaves against the slaveowners during the U.S. Civil War.

In that historic struggle, education was useful--a specific kind of education: A radical political education in the realities of the times and knowledge of "who are the real enemies and who are the real friends" of the oppressed. The fighting slaves needed education in military affairs, and they needed the discipline of comradeship and organized offensive. For all that, they needed to be able to read, to study the world and the road to liberation. Douglass, a runaway slave himself, taught himself to read, and write and speak, to serve the struggle.

Clarence Thomas was lying when he argued that schooling ends oppression, and he is doubly lying when he suggests that state funding of religious schools will provide the kind of education that "means emancipation."

Even if inner city kids somehow got some better formal schooling--which is not the point of vouchers--this system cannot and will not provide a decent future for them. This system gathers its wealth from the exploitation and impoverishment of millions of people in the U.S. and around the world. Wearing school uniforms and learning prayers will never change that.

The vouchers scheme is part of a much larger Christian fascist movement to harden and conservatize U.S. society. There will be no real change without resisting these ugly forces, their schemes, and their ruling class backers.

The new generation needs a real education--they need the political consciousness, scientific methodology, revolutionary morality, and collective discipline to build a real liberation struggle, and take it through all the twists and turns to victory.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)