School Vouchers Debated in New York

Published June 1, 2002

More than one hundred people gathered at Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York on April 4 to hear a debate on school vouchers organized by the director of the College’s Center for Catholic Studies, Professor Joseph A. Varacalli, with the help of Barbara Bernstein, president of the Nassau Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The resolution being debated was: “Parents should be able to use public taxes to pay for the education of their children in private schools, whether secular or religious.” Arguing for the affirmative were Frank Russo Jr., state director of the American Family Association and a board member of Citizens for Educational Freedom; and George A. Clowes, managing editor of School Reform News.

Opposed to the resolution were Rabbi Stephen W. Goodman, a board member of the Nassau Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union; and Professor Philip Y. Nicholson, former president of the Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers and a faculty member in the college’s history department.

The scheduled two-hour debate was extended beyond that time to permit extensive questions from the audience. Excerpts of the arguments used by each side are provided below.

Frank J. Russo Jr.

The essence of our position, based on principles of fairness and freedom, is that it is the parent, not the government, who should decide which school is best for his or her child. So long as a school performs the basic educational functions required by the state, the issue being debated asks who should pick the school.

Our opponents say parents should be forced to pick the government school, and if they refuse, they give up their fair share of the educational tax dollar. We say it is the parent who should make this decision, not the government, and this opportunity to choose must include poor and middle-income parents, not merely the wealthy.

The educational benefits from school choice are especially clear for poor and minority students stuck for years in failing inner-city public schools. While most of the opposition to choice comes from powerful teacher unions who see a threat to their monopoly, this is understandable, as they are simply looking after their own self-interest. The focus needs to be shifted from protecting the existing monopoly to a focus upon children, especially those in failing public schools.

John Norquist, the Democrat mayor of Milwaukee, was initially opposed to vouchers. But while in the State Senate, he was persuaded by Polly Williams to do a complete turnabout and support school choice. According to Norquist, Milwaukee parents, children, and the entire city have clearly benefited from the school choice program.

Other opposition comes from those hostile to religious schools, who want to preserve the current government-run monopoly that basically imposes the religion of secular humanism on all students. With school choice, parents win by retaining the power to guide their child’s moral and academic education; children win by getting a better education as result of competition; and taxpayers win by saving billions of dollars, since vouchers are set below the cost of a public school education.

George A. Clowes

My motivation for supporting vouchers is two-fold. First, we have to improve the quality of K-12 education or our republic cannot survive. As Thomas Jefferson said, “If you want a nation that is both ignorant and free, that is something that never was and never will be.”

Secondly, we must treat all parents with equal respect. The current K-12 system treats parents disrespectfully. Parents are treated as if they are incompetent to make decisions about the education of their children.

It’s only in public schools that parents are treated as incompetent.

Parents who are veterans are treated as competent to make decisions on spending federal education vouchers at public, private, or religious colleges, using almost $3 billion a year in GI Bill funds.

Parents with preschoolers are treated as competent to make decisions on spending federal day-care vouchers at public, private, or religious preschool facilities, using $4.8 billion a year in Child Care and Development Block Grant funds.

Parents who are college students are treated as competent to make decisions about spending federal education vouchers at public, private, or religious colleges, using more than $9 billion a year in Pell Grant funds.

It’s time to treat parents of K-12 students as competent to make decisions on how to spend the tax dollars designated for the education of their children.

It’s time to treat parents—particularly low-income parents—with the respect they deserve. Vouchers do that.

Rabbi Stephen W. Goodman

Let me speak as a religious leader. Is this what the religious community wants—to have the government sticking its nose into our religious schools, telling us what we can teach, when, where, and how? Isn’t this one of the evils that Jefferson and Madison sought to avoid by establishing a wall of separation between church and state? Religion has thrived in this country as in no other, because it has been independent of government. Do we want to sell our souls to the government for a few dollars?

As a religious leader, I worry when I hear the religious community saying, “We don’t care enough about our own religious schools to pay for them. Let’s get somebody else to pay for them. Let’s make people who don’t share our beliefs pay for our beliefs.” That’s undemocratic, unfair, and a deep violation of the founding principles of this nation.

And I worry about the moral independence of the religious community. Religion, like anything else, is not inclined to bite the hand that feeds it. If religious schools receive significant government funds, religious leaders will be less inclined to criticize the government. But that is one of the fundamental duties of the religious community. As Martin Luther King said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and critic of the state, and never its tool.”

School vouchers threaten to make us tools of the state. We see that here tonight. Under religious auspices, we are debating whether to give public money to religious institutions. For religious institutions, that is not a moral issue; it’s a matter of pure self-interest. The moral question for religious institutions is this: Is it moral for us to take money away from public schools that are in trouble? The question we ought to be debating as a religious community is, why aren’t we doing more to encourage government to raise and spend enough money on the public schools to ensure that poor children receive just as good an education as rich children?

Philip Y. Nicholson

Either religious freedom will be curbed by the state in religious schools if they receive public money, or there will be a danger to civil liberties from a public sanction and subsidy of religious authority. Remember, schooling is required by law of all children. Religious education, wherever it is done, is always a threat to someone’s civil rights if those rights are inconsistent with the religious beliefs or practices. Look at how so many religions have regarded women, free speech, the rights of teachers or students to dissent. There will be serious erosion of the First Amendment if vouchers are permitted, unless the religious schools are forced to change.

In the South today in more than a dozen states private religious schools, mainly Baptist, have sprung up everywhere for millions of white parents who quite deliberately desire to evade racial desegregation. Those schools carefully take in a few selected non-whites, just enough to avoid the charge of racial exclusion, but those schools were clearly designed to avoid the court-ordered desegregation rulings for public schools of the recent past. Unless vouchers take away control over the admission and expulsion practices of private schools, racism and other civil rights violations will be subsidized by taxpayers.

I know that we all like to think that our own faith is a tolerant one, but any religious body that gains or wields political power is dangerous to outsiders to that faith and threatens greater abuse to its own followers because of its increased authority over them that vouchers could provide. Government-subsidized education can promote ethnic and religious intolerance.