Hello everyone, I’m Ed Joyce, the President of the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Each week I will write a blog post about a specific church-state issue, a threat to the wall of separation, DVAU activities, and more. I encourage you to comment so we can have a dialogue about the issues.
On the heels of DVAU’s two voucher debates held recently in Philadelphia PA and Trenton NJ, I would like to comment specifically on school vouchers in Pennsylvania.
Here we go again – The issue that won’t die, aka Senate Bill 1, is coming up again in the PA state legislature. It wasn’t voted on during the last legislative session most likely because sponsors knew the votes weren’t there. Senate leaders and the governor have listed school choice among their priorities as the General Assembly returned to session two weeks ago, raising expectations that SB 1 will again be voted out of the Education Committee, for consideration by the full Senate, in the near term. So this is truly a timely issue!
For those not up on the PA voucher issue, SB 1 or the “Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act” is proposed legislation that has been introduced in the PA Senate, which, if approved by the Pennsylvania House and Senate and signed by the Governor, would establish a school voucher program in PA. This legislation would allow low-income families to take state tax dollars devoted to their child and apply those dollars to the public or nonpublic school of their choice. The amount of money available to voucher recipients is typically not enough to cover tuition at more exclusive private schools leaving Catholic and other religious schools as the only option. In fact, in other cities with voucher programs 80 – 85 % of the voucher recipients end up sending their children to a Catholic school. Religious schools are free to discriminate against both students and employees based on race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
So what’s wrong with this scenario? First of all, it violates the PA Constitution which clearly states that public funds are not to be used for religious education. Besides offending the state’s constitution, vouchers are a clear breach of the principle of Church/State separation. Churches and religious groups should be supported by voluntary contributions – not tax payer dollars.
Opponents also argue that this bill will hurt public schools by taking funds that could be used to benefit the education of all students not just those who receive vouchers. Also, voucher programs have repeatedly been proven unsuccessful in boosting academic performance and since 1967 voters in 23 states have rejected vouchers.
Another gloomy voucher fact is that there is little if any curriculum oversight mandated by the bill so schools receiving vouchers can teach pretty much what they want. As a scientist, I don’t think it’s beneficial for the long-term technical progress of our country to be sending tax dollars to schools that can teach the earth is only 6,000 years old and humankind descended from Adam & Eve.
Over the last few months the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United sponsored three, well attended, voucher debates; two in PA and one in NJ (where a voucher scheme is also being considered). During the debates I witnessed the tangled emotions involved and I think I now understand the impassioned, and at times fanatical, stand taken by voucher advocates.
Voucher supporters believe that low-income families should have the same kind of choice that wealthier families have always had — to opt out of local public schools in favor of private or parochial schools. Voucher proponents say that parents are the best people to determine what school would work best for their child. But what really popped out at me during the debates is the deep parental concern for the violence their children are subjected to in inner city schools. Parents who spoke-up at the debates could care less about constitutional compliance or about the voucher track record at other schools. They want their kids out of the dangerous environ that permeates many inner city schools.
This is without doubt an important and emotional issue. However, it must be understood that vouchers are not the answer to parental concerns about violence. If their child happens to be one of the few to receive a voucher they will get a second chance at another school. But it doesn’t solve the issue for the many who remain behind. If you think inner city schools are bad now, wait until many of the better students leave and even less money is available to the public schools.
When I was in college in the late 1960’s and early 70’s education reform was a big concern and many students were choosing careers in education because the problems were many and challenging. And the same is true today. The great majority of our public schools have worked very well over the decades so instead of abandoning them let’s keep working to improve them. Voucher programs essentially abandon our public schools. Another concern of Americans United is that voucher initiatives are well funded and supported by religious right organizations and far-right politicians who would like nothing better than to do away with our public school system.
So what to do? Write, call, or email your state representative and let them know what you think. The PA voucher bill is not just bad for education it’s unconstitutional as well.
Click here to read Americans United’s statements against the Pennsylvania school voucher bill, SB-1. Let me know your thoughts about vouchers and what we can do to stop them, in the comments section below.