Written by J. Bennett Guess
July - August 2002
Signaling an enormous policy shift in how the United States educates its children and revealing a broad new interpretation of the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 27 that public tax dollars can support vouchers for use in private schools.
The 5-4 decision was a reversal of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals case involving a school voucher program in Cleveland.
The UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, which filed an amicus brief in the case opposing vouchers, repudiated the Supreme Court for abandoning support for public education in the nation's inner cities and for seizing public money to pay for mandatory religious instruction.
While the UCC has always defended the right of parents to choose private or parochial education, the denomination has historically supported public investment in the schools that serve all children.
"Vouchers fail to provide a practical long-term solution to the current inequitable funding schemes that are the source of the challenges faced by our nation's public schools," said Bernice Powell Jackson, executive minister of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.
Cleveland's program redirects money from the district's portion of Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid (DPIA), the funding stream created by the Ohio legislature to assist school districts with a large percentage of children in poverty. In the 2001-2002 school year, the voucher program is estimated to have cost the city's public schools $8 million in state DPIA dollars. Many students now receiving vouchers have always attended private and parochial schools and have never attended public schools.
Jan Resseger, UCC minister for public education and witness, said the nation's new preoccupation with vouchers has become a smokescreen that distracts attention from the pressing needs of those who are and will remain students in public schools.
"Throughout this case, Cleveland's public schools have been unfairly trashed as some kind of aberrant case of public school failure. However, Cleveland is every city. Its schools are the schools of Hartford, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, and Kansas City," Resseger said. "The overwhelming struggle for urban public schools is extreme segregation by race and concentrated family poverty—and the inadequate and inequitable school funding that magnifies these challenges. We need to be talking about how our society can address the civil rights crisis in big city schools."
The court's decision is a major shift in judicial interpretation of church-state separation, which has until now prohibited the use of government funding to establish or favor particular religions at public expense. In Cleveland, more than 99 percent of the vouchers have been used at religious schools. Many of these schools require children to participate in religious instruction, regardless of a family's faith tradition.
President George Bush responded to the decision by calling for dramatically increased use of vouchers for private schools, and Republicans in the House of Representatives are already advancing proposals to transfer more government funds into voucher programs.
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess is Minister for Communication and Mission Education for Justice and Witness Ministries.
|UCC policy base on school vouchers
United Church of Christ public policy priorities are set by the pronouncements and resolutions passed by UCC General Synods and our various boards of directors.
Here is the policy base on school vouchers:
"Pronouncement on Public Education," General Synod 15, 1985
"We defend the right of parents to choose alternative, private, religious, or independent schools, but continue to declare that those schools should be funded by private sources of income."
"Resolution Regarding 'Choice' in Education," Board of Directors, United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, 1991
"We need to reaffirm our support for children and the public schools, to work in our churches and communities to strengthen the public schools, and to speak out against anything which contributes to the further weakening of our public educational system. 'Choice' which is not real choice—since many parochial or private schools are not open to all children because of their class, color, religious belief, or handicapping condition—is no solution to our educational problems. A 'choice' which includes private and parochial schools would result in undue involvement of church and state and in the use of public school funds for private or parochial education. ... Therefore, be it resolved that the Directors of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, meeting in Denver, Colorado on October 28, 1991, express their continuing concern for public education and the children in our public schools by declaring their support for true educational choice—i.e., choice within the public school system—and their opposition to any alleged program of 'choice' which would result in the use of publicly raised education funds in parochial or private schools."
Board of Directors, Justice and Witness Ministries, Oct. 14, 2000
We vote "To affirm the historical record of the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries of the United Church of Christ's support of quality public education for all children, including opposition to school vouchers. This forms the foundation for JWM programmatic work and public policy priorities."