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The Voucher Shot Heard ‘round the State

This week is National School Choice Week, and in his State of the State address Monday night, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval called for “more parental choice,” including “vouchers to make private school education a possibility for more families.” To which Steve Sebelius of SlashPolitics wrote:

“On education, Sandoval mentioned vouchers for private schools, but not the fact that a voucher equal to the state’s current per-pupil expenditure will not enable poor children to afford tuition at many private schools. And, as Sandoval has already acknowledged, vouchers cannot be used for religious schools in Nevada until the state constitution is changed, a five-year process.”

No, a voucher in the amount of $5,000 will not enable poor children to attend the more expensive and elite private schools in Nevada; however, that amount WOULD be enough, more than enough in some cases, to attend other existing private schools. At the very least, it would help many parents on the “bubble” between being able to afford a private school and not being able to afford a private school.

In addition, as anyone who understands supply-and-demand economics knows, if thousands of parents in low-income and middle-class neighborhoods suddenly start waving around $5,000 vouchers, the private sector will find a way to fill that demand.

As for the contention that vouchers cannot be used in religious schools in Nevada until the state constitution is changed, that’s not necessarily true either. What stands in the way is an anti-Catholic provision in the constitution called the “Blaine Amendment.”

However, Clint Bolick, author of “Voucher Wars” and one of the lead attorneys fighting in favor of a voucher program in Ohio some years ago, writes that anti-voucher teachers “unions have contrived a new strategy in Blaine amendment states by contending that school choice would require an amendment to the state constitution, when in nearly all of the states, that’s not true.”

And the reason it’s not true is that the United States Supreme Court, in its 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision, established that it is absolutely possible to create a voucher program that neither violates the First Amendment nor the Blaine amendments providing funding goes to parents and not directly to religious schools.

What folks on this issue who raise the separation of church and state argument often miss is the FULL wording of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. To refresh your memory, it goes like this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In other words, the First Amendment requires government NEUTRALITY with regard to religion, giving neither favor to nor discriminating against. Indeed, college students use government benefits from the G.I. Bill and Pell Grants to attend religious schools of higher learning. Using a Pell Grant to attend Notre Dame or Georgetown University does NOT “establish” religion; however, denying a student the ability to choose either of those schools WOULD be discrimination BECAUSE of religion.

Writing for the majority in the Zelman case, Chief Justice William Rehnquist declared that “where a government aid program is neutral with respect to religion, and provides assistance to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice, is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that “While the romanticized ideal of universal public education resonates with the cognoscenti who oppose vouchers, poor urban families just want the best education for their children, who will certainly need it to function in our high-tech and advanced society.”

Thomas added that the Ohio voucher program “does not force any individual to submit to religious indoctrination or education. It simply gives parents a greater choice as to where and in what manner to educate their children.”

Bolick notes that “the majority decision (in the Zelman case) is the law of the land, and it has dissipated the largest single legal obstacle standing in the way of school choice.” It establishes “the baseline principle that parents may be entrusted with the decision of how to direct the spending devoted to their children’s education.”

School choice through vouchers isn’t about “establishing” religion; it’s about extending freedom – especially to economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in America’s inner cities where families don’t have the financial resources the middle- and upper-class enjoy.

As Mr. Bolick notes, “We live in a society characterized by consumer choices – just about everywhere except in the most important service of all, elementary and secondary education.” He concludes:

“It seems to me that the one obligation we all share as Americans is to leave a nation that is at least as free as the one we inherited. We’ve got to make up for lost time. And freeing up our nation’s educational system is a great place to start. The kids don’t have any time to waste. We’ve got to get going. Today. This minute.”

Amen. And if the teachers union won’t get out of the doorway and let our children free, then it’s way past time to push them out of the way. So let it be written, Governor; so let it be done.