In his State of the Union address Jan. 25, President Barack Obama emphasized the importance of improving America’s system of education.
“Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success,” he said. “But if we want to win the future – if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids…. The question is whether all of us – as citizens, and as parents – are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.”
Obama touted his “Race to the Top” program and other education reform efforts targeting public schools.
House Speaker John Boehner was thinking about education that night, too. His priorities, however, were very different from Obama’s. Boehner’s special guests in the House Gallery included Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a group of teachers and students from the Consortium of Catholic Academies and an array of lobbyists from right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups that support voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools.
It was a not-so-subtle signal that the Ohio Republican intends to aggressively carry through on his promise to try to reauthorize and expand a controversial federally funded voucher program in the District of Columbia.
The next day, Boehner took action. He and U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced bills in the House and Senate that would allocate $20 million annually in voucher assistance for religious and other private schools. Under their so-called Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, participating students would be eligible for up to $8,500 for tuition at elementary schools and $12,000 for tuition at high schools.
The proposal would revive and escalate the funding for a George W. Bush-era program that has been scheduled to shut down as soon as the currently participating students graduate.
The House bill, HR 471, had five original cosponsors: Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), John Kline (R-Minn.) and Daniel Lipinski (R-Ill.). The Senate measure, S. 206, had four cosponsors: Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Susan Collins (R- Maine), John Ensign (R- Nev.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
At a press conference announcing the venture, Boehner and Lieberman hailed the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program as an escape route for inner-city children enrolled in poorly performing public schools and a model program for state legislatures around the country to adopt.
Said Boehner, “There’s only one program in America where the federal government allows parents from lower-income families to choose the schools that are best for their children, and it’s right here in D.C. The D.C. program provides a model that I believe can work well in other communities around the nation – it should be expanded, not ended.”
Lieberman was equally effusive.
“It’s not about any particular program,” Lieberman added. “It’s about providing a multitude of options where the ultimate benefit is not for any existing system but for our children.”
But, in fact, the program does disproportionately benefit one system: Washington, D.C.’s Catholic schools. According to the Catholic Standard, 879 of the 1,700 D.C. students enrolled in the voucher program in 2008 attended Catholic schools. (The U.S. Department of Education says approximately 80 percent of D.C. voucher students attended religious schools in 2009.)
Cardinal Wuerl expressed great gratitude for the Boehner voucher push. In a statement released Jan. 25, he thanked the House speaker for his attention to the issue.
“I am honored to be a guest of Speaker John Boehner at this evening’s State of the Union address and to accompany some of the children who attend our schools and their parents,” he said. “We are grateful to Speaker Boehner for his continuing support for these children that they may not only receive an excellent education but also may have hope for the future.”
But Wuerl didn’t mention that the federal funding would also be an important subsidy for the church’s religious instruction program. Catholic schools, like other religious schools that have participated in the voucher scheme, include a sectarian perspective throughout their curriculum. The denomination’s parochial school system is under increasing financial pressure, and the bishops are looking for additional funding.
In a Jan. 26 essay in the diocesan newspaper, Wuerl said, “Catholic education in all its forms has as a primary task the communication of the person and message of Christ.” He celebrated parochial schools’ “Catholic identity” and insisted that “our schools are Catholic and we teach the faith and form our children in the faith of the Church.”
While Catholic schools took the largest share of D.C. voucher funding, other religious schools have benefitted as well. In the 2008-2009 school year, for example, participating schools included the Dupont Park (Seventh-day) Adventist School, First Rock Baptist Christian Church School, Cornerstone Beulah Christian Academy and Muhammad University of Islam.
Critics say operation of religious schools is well within the rights of the sponsoring faiths, but it shouldn’t be subsidized by taxpayers who may or may not agree with that agenda.
Said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, “All Americans are free to donate to the churches and church schools of their choice. But no American should be forced to support a church or church school by the government.”
In a press statement issued the day the Boehner/Lieberman bills were announced, Lynn said, “I can’t imagine a worse time to unveil a new federal subsidy for religious schools. This proposal would add to the federal budget deficit while subsidizing schools that indoctrinate and discriminate in hiring.
“Public funds should be directed toward improving public schools, not private schools that are unaccountable to the American people,” he continued. “I hope members of Congress see just how wrong-headed this proposal is.”
On Jan. 27, Americans United sent letters to every member of the House and Senate urging opposition to the proposal.
Maggie Garrett, AU’s interim director of legislative affairs, said the D.C. voucher experiment has failed to improve educational outcomes, allows government-funded discrimination in hiring and funds religious schools.
“The D.C. voucher scheme permits religious schools that accept vouchers to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring and on the basis of gender in admission,” Garrett wrote. “A central principle of our constitutional order, however, is that the Constitution does not permit the State to aid discrimination…. Taxpayer money should not fund programs that harm the fundamental civil rights of students and teachers.”
Garrett noted that the D.C. program was approved by Congress in 2003 as a five-year pilot program. Studies by the U.S. Department of Education, she said, have concluded that the use of vouchers had no statistically significant impact on overall student achievement in math or reading. In addition, she pointed out that students from “schools in need of improvement,” the supposed target audience, showed no gains in reading or math.
Garrett chairs the National Coalition for Public Education, an alliance of educational, civil liberties, religious and other advocacy organizations that oppose public funding of religious and other private schools.
In a joint letter to Congress Feb. 8, 47 groups urged the defeat of the Boehner/Lieberman plan.
“NCPE believes,” the letter said, “that instead of sending federal money to private schools, it should be invested in the public schools. We also note that despite receiving public money, the participating private schools are not subject to all federal civil rights laws, and do not face the same public accountability standards, including those in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, that all public schools must meet. Finally, we also believe this program continues to raise problems under the First Amendment of the Constitution.”
In addition to AU, signers ranged from the American Association of University Women, the ACLU, the American Jewish Committee and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty to the National PTA, the National Organization for Women, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Union for Reform Judaism.
Despite voucher proponents’ claim that African Americans support “school choice” schemes, among the letter’s signers were African American Ministers in Action, the National Alliance of Black School Educators and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The D.C. voucher scheme also has drawn opposition from elected officials in the District who do not want to see Congress usurp local control.
Mayor Vincent Gray, for example, has already confronted Boehner about the proposal, bringing up the topic in a get-acquainted meeting with the new House speaker Jan. 27.
“I shared with the speaker my opposition to vouchers,” Gray said in a statement after the meeting. “Education has always been an issue decided by elected state officials, and I believe that the elected leaders of the District of Columbia should set the education policy for the District, not the United States Congress.”
Some local officials have abandoned their initial support for vouchers because of the discriminatory employment practices of the religious schools that would benefit from the public funding.
District Council Member David Catania said he switched after the bitter battle over civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cardinal Wuerl and affiliated Catholic charities in the city aggressively fought marriage rights for gays and lesbians and said they would refuse to accept public funding if it meant recognizing such couples’ rights.
In a statement to the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, Catania said, “In the past, I have supported voucher programs for all schools, including religious schools. However, my view on this subject changed in the wake of my recent experience involving marriage equality…. During the marriage equality discussion, I saw public funds used in a way that furthered a particular religious point of view and which discriminated against a portion of the public. This experience illustrated for me the danger of using public funds to support a particular religious tradition.”
Despite the opposition of so many groups and public figures, the battle in Congress is expected to be hard-fought.
Boehner, as speaker, can easily make the issue a top priority in the House, and since Republicans enjoy a 242-193 majority there, chances of passage are high. The voucher scheme faces tougher sledding in the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow 51-47 majority. (Lieberman, an independent, caucuses with the Democrats, as does Vermont independent Bernie Sanders.)
But Lieberman has recruited a few Democrats in support of his bill, and the measure’s fate remains very much up in the air. As Church & State went to press, the bills appeared to be on a fast track.
The voucher scheme has broad support from an array of Religious Right organizations. Wealthy right-wing foundations and funders are also backing the measure, although their role is usually played out in the background.
Boehner’s staff pushed forward inner-city African-American voucher students and their parents at the State of the Union, but others in the speaker’s section of the House gallery included representatives from the Heritage Foundation and Betsey DeVos’ American Federation for Children, two groups dedicated to funding private schools and demonizing public schools.
Observers say Heritage Foundation staffers usually oppose governmental social programs intended to benefit poor families but they make an exception in this case because it weakens the public school system, undercuts public school teachers’ unions and directs funding to religious and other private schools.
The Boehner/Lieberman gambit is also certain to receive support from the influential U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
In a Jan. 14 letter to Congress detailing the hierarchy’s political agenda, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York called for tax credits and “scholarship” programs to benefit parochial schools. Dolan, USCCB president, also demanded an “equitable” share of public funds allocated through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a federal program that is up for reauthorization this year.
AU’s Garrett says it is imperative for everyone who cares about public schools and church-state separation to get involved.
“Members of Congress need to hear from us,” she said. “I’m sure they will be hearing from folks on the other side.”