Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Michael: Voucher schools = American maddrassas

With the State's voucher bill soon landing on Napolitano's desk, Arizona's citizen should reflect deeply on what the bill actually allows. The proponents of vouchers claim that it provides more choices and more competition that will improve public schools. In theory that is true, but charter schools were supposed to do that, and we're still 48th in education nationally. In fact, charter school students tend to fare worse academically than their public school counter-parts. So why do we need vouchers if we already have charters and the fine idea of choice and competition has failed to produce meaningful results in over a decade of experimentation in AZ?

You will recall that the Bush Administration has been quietly rewriting employment discrimination law with the result that Federally funded faith-based organizations are now allowed to discriminate based on religious beliefs. This sets a clear precedent for allowing private religious schools accepting state funds in the form of vouchers to likewise discriminate in their employment practices. Given that private schools would not be required to open enrollment to all comers to receive state vouchers, the stage is set to create privately owned and operated, but state-funded schools at which toleration of relgious diversity is entirely absent. We will have created American Maddrassas at which religious indoctrination and a hatred for secular society is the main curriculum.

Allowing religious institutions to use taxpayer money for prosthelyzing youth is poor policy. Those most motivated to separate their children from secular society for their education are those most hostile to American institutions of public life. Fundamentalist Christians have already established Universities and a Law School to produce professionals who put their faith above all else. Now the indoctrination would start at Kindergarten; at what point would a child ever have a chance to absorb the values of American citizenship? Wouldn't they in fact be a citizen of the 'City of God' having gone exclusively to religious schools growing up?

Regardless of the danger of creating an America Taliban which is religiously alienated from the rest of American society, vouchers are a disservice to parents and students. Voucher schools have no need to meet curricula or performance targets, so there is no accountability for public money spent on them. Voucher schools have no need to meet NCLB or AIMS testing requirements, so they can't be evaluated by educators, the government, nor the prospective employers of their students.

Our Governor should veto the bill, whatever Republicans might offer her in exchange. Vouchers are bad idea. They are wrong for Arizona and bad for secular society. Objectively, they create a tax-payer funded crèche for religious radicals who are hostile to civil society - although Tom DeLay's immortal words, "I don't believe there is a separation between church and state," amply demonstrates that one needn't be raised in a Madrassa to be a religious zealot.

UPDATE: House Bills 2427 and 2625 would cost Arizona taxpayers up to $25 million in FY 2007 and increase over the next 11 years (as one new cohort of Kindergartners was added each year) to a total of $225 million in FY 2018. If about 110K children where placed into voucher schools over that time, then the state may begin to break even in 2018. That's alot of additional revenue for a program that is often portrayed as a means cost containment. The cost of this program is more than the 20 million dollar expansion of all-day kindergarten proposed by the Governor. So the legislature apparently feels that paying more for the public schools to do less is a wiser investment than the schools doing more when it matters most.

The sponsors also feels keenly the potential unconstitutionality of the voucher scheme it seems. The U.S. Supreme court did find that vouchers do not violate the federal constitution, but the Arizona state constitution says, "No tax shall be laid or appropriation of public money made in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school, or any public service corporation." Some will say that the state is not giving the money to schools, but to parents. That's a distiction without a difference. I could see a difference if the parent were free to spend it on beer instead of eduction, but as it is, it is just an alternative method of dispersing funds to schools. Similar programs were recently held to violate the state constitutions of Vermont and Florida, which have similar provisions.

Of course, our Republican legislators are not reknowned for their legal accumen. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-22) claims the U.S. constitution takes precedence over the state constitution, which is true, but not accurate. Just because the Supreme Court says there is nothing restricting vouchers in the federal consitution doesn't mean that the state constitution cannot be more restrictive of state spending - and it is. And what the hell ever happened to state soveriegnty as a Conservative value. anyway? Biggs is arguing that nothing in a state's constitution can differ from the federal constitution. Doesn't at least one Republican have a problem with Biggs' assertion? Or has political principle surrendered to political expediency completely?

Biggs authored HB 2625, and provides several cites to federal cases in the preamble in an attempt to legitimize vouchers. The only Arizona case Biggs could cite was Kotterman v. Killian, 972 P.2d 606 (Ariz. 1999), which actually undercuts the constitutionality of voucher bills under the Arizona constitution.

In Kotterman, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the state income tax credit for contributions to private scholarship organizations under the religious establishment provision of the state constitution. The Court held that an income tax credit does not constitute a legislative appropriation, thus the state constitutional restriction on the use of public funds was not triggered. While I question the distinction, for reasons laid out in Justice Feldman's dissent, is Biggs seriously trying to convince people that state tuition vouchers would not be appropriations?

These bills are clearly an attempt to put tax-payer money into building American Maddrassas and are just clearly unconstitutional under the Arizona constitution. As for the Federal precedents upholding vouchers to religious schools, they all rely upon the specious idea that the choice of the parent in selecting the school prevents entanglement or endorsement of religious dogma. In this, the court is flatly misguided. The Supreme Court has departed from traditional jurisprudential principles in this area, and are in fact engaged in judicial activism of the worst sort; the kind that sullies our most cherished principles, like the separation of church and state.

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