Washington — One of the greatest minds of the 20th century has, in the early years of the 21st Century, been vindicated! In the 1950s Nobel-Prize winning economist Milton Friedman began arguing for using vouchers to end the public school monopoly. I first read his argument in Capitalism and Freedom, his classic treatise on the free society and the limits of government published in the early 1960s. Since then many of his economic ideas have gained wide acceptance where once they were derided as antiques. Even his prejudices in favor of limited government have gained popularity. Yet for forty years vouchers have remained in limbo, thanks to the alarums sounded by the school unions, the public school bureaucracies, and assorted representatives of the bien pensant.
Their most devastating argument has been that vouchers are unconstitutional. Thus no further discussion was necessary. Aside from Friedman’s ardor for debate (he has established a foundation to promote vouchers) and that of a few like-minded advocates, the discussion or possibly implementation of vouchers was stifled. However, on June 27 in a decision that may be as historic as Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decided that there is nothing unconstitutional about vouchers. Let the test begin. Let free citizens with vouchers send their children to the schools of their choice. Let us see if competition improves the schools of the land, as Friedman has been predicting.
The Court’s decision (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) upheld Cleveland, Ohio’s plan to give poor citizens government vouchers for tuition at any school enrolled in the city’s voucher program, whether it be public, private, or parochial. Opponents of the plan had argued that tax dollars spent at parochial schools ran afoul of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which opposes Congress’s establishment of a religion. The argument is historically ignorant, but that has not stopped it from being used for generations to oppose government monies seeping into religious institutions and more recently to kill off voucher programs.
I say it is a historically ignorant argument because when the Constitution was drawn up some of the states already had established religions. That is to say that state tax revenue was flowing in places such as Virginia to an established church. In the original thirteen colonies state taxes supported no fewer than three religions, the Anglican, the Methodist, and the Dutch Reformed. What the Constitution’s Establishment Clause was meant to do was to oppose federal tax revenue establishing a national church in America. By mangling the Founding Fathers’ intent, beginning in the 1940s, so-called progressives and liberals have managed to create the great and essentially phony controversy between the separation of church and state. Just last week it led to the absurdity of a court in San Francisco banning the Pledge of Allegiance in school rooms because of the Pledge’s passage which reads “One nation under God.”
Now, however, questions regarding the constitutionality of school vouchers have been laid to rest. In his majority opinion Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that the Cleveland voucher program was a “program of true private choice” because parents not the government direct their tax-supported vouchers to schools. Another argument, made by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, noted that state money has been finding its way into religious institutions for years, Pell grants to college students who go to religious institutions, Medicaid payments to Catholic hospitals.
With the constitutionality of vouchers now established, governments can get on with testing Friedman’s belief that vouchers will create competition for the school system and in so doing improve public schools through competition. Always the optimist Friedman does not believe public schools have to be inferior schools. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where a school choice program was launched years ago despite arguments against its constitutionality, student test scores in all grades have risen even in public schools. In Florida, where a newer school choice program has been adopted, the number of failing public schools dropped from 78 in the program’s first year to four a year later.
Vouchers still face challenges in some states. Thirty-seven states still have nineteenth Century laws that forbid using tax dollars in religious schools. Ironically these laws were established not to “separate” church and state but more pointedly to hobble Catholic immigration to the United States. The first was passed in Massachusetts in 1854. It was a creation of that bête noire of all good Liberals, the Know-Nothing party, which had come to power promising to “Americanize America.” Do the opponents of vouchers now join the side of the Know-Nothings?