Will school vouchers be bad for Christianity?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 8 2002 1:49 PM

No Quick Crucifix

The Supreme Court's school voucher decision has led to a flood of speculation about whether the ruling is bad for a) public schools, b) minority religions, c) atheists, or d) the Constitution.

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There's another question to consider: Will it be bad for Christianity? Conservatives who have, in other contexts, argued that everything the government touches turns to dreck may want to review their earlier arguments. We now have many years of experience with religiously oriented educational and charitable institutions receiving federal money, and we can predict some of the unintended side effects:

1.
Mission Dilution. The concern expressed by government skeptics has always been that no matter how well-intentioned, state aid distorts the decision-making of institutions that receive government money. Some conservatives raised concerns about Bush's faith-based initiative precisely because they feared government cash would come with too many strings. Critics have pointed to groups like Catholic Charities, saying it's become less religious since becoming a big government-aid recipient. You get government money, you have to live by government rules.

For more than 30 years the federal government has been giving grants and loans to young people to attend post-secondary religious schools—religious colleges, graduate schools, and even seminaries. Right now, students use federal grants and loans to attend schools ranging from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University to the Rabbinical College of America in New Jersey, affiliated with the Lubavich Rabbi Menachem Schneerson (thought by some Orthodox Jews to have been the Messiah). The Lubavich rabbis don't field a football though that would be one ticket I'd pay big money for—but any schools that do have formal athletic programs must abide by Title IX requirements for women's sports. It would be only a matter of time before the local St. Xaviers would become subject to certain government regulations as well.

2. Growth of Minority Religions.
If voucher programs proliferate, the biggest winners may end up being Muslim schools. When Humari Bokari was principal of St. Leo's Catholic school in Milwaukee during the 1990s, she said she "didn't get much of a boost in attendance" from vouchers. But when Bokari became principal of an Islamic primary school, she said vouchers made a big difference. In 10 years, the school went from seven students to 360 in part, she told Beliefnet.com, because of vouchers. Muslim educators believe the Supreme Court's voucher decision could be significant because it comes at the moment that Muslims are focusing on expanding their schools.

The growth of Muslim education, to be clear, would not be "bad for religion," but it should give pause to those Christian voucher proponents who thought chipping down the wall between church and state would put their God back in the schools. Many non-Christian private schools will benefit from vouchers. Take the Instilling Goodness Elementary and Developing Virtue Secondary School, a Buddhist institution in Ukiah, Calif., or Hare Krishna boarding schools, or the Washington Islamic Academy, which has world maps without Israel on its walls, according to the Washington Post.

Another lesson from the federal student-aid program is relevant. The availability of aid has fueled a boom in shady trade schools, some of them of dubious value. The Department of Education has spent much time trying to distinguish legitimate cooking schools from bad ones. Will education officials now have to do the same for religious schools? And what standards will they use?

The government is going to quickly face a choice: Take a very pluralistic approach to vouchers, which will end up funneling federal money to schools that promote religions unfamiliar to most Americans, or alternatively, pick which schools promote "legitimate religions." Since the latter is virtually impossible—and almost certain to fail judicial review—the government will most likely have to allow vouchers to be used at a very wide range of religious schools. Expect to see a boom in school experiments from smaller religious groups who until now may not have viewed K-12 education as financially viable.

3. Tuition Inflation.
The federal student aid programs are mostly viewed as having been successes, primarily because they enabled middle- and lower-income families to attend expensive private schools.  But they have also helped trigger tuition inflation. College prices have risen far faster than inflation, a development many analysts believe was fueled by the availability of financial aid. College administrators can set tuition higher because the extra cost will be covered by government grants and loans.

The same could happen to K-12 religious schools. Say a particular Catholic school has 1,000 students each paying $4,000 a year, and the new government voucher pays $4,000. The school would be crazy not to increase the tuition to $5,000. Each student would pay only $1,000 a year—much less than before—and the school would get to increase its tuition revenue a whopping 20 percent.

School vouchers could have many positive potential outcomes for education, and possibly some for organized religion. For example, low-income churches that otherwise could not afford to set up schools might now do so. But if history is any guide, the national voucher movement will make religious education more expensive, less pure, and less Christian.

Steven Waldman is editor in chief ofBeliefnet, the leading multifaith spirituality and religion Web site.

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