Vouchers - Balkanizing education
(The Charleston Gazette, Oct. 2, 2000)

REPUBLICANS, fundamentalists and Catholics across America push for vouchers, which would pour public tax money into church schools. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush created the nation's largest voucher plan - which a judge ruled unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, residents of two states are preparing to vote on voucher initiatives.

In California, Proposition 38 would give parents $4,000 for every school-age child, to be spent at any private school or for home schooling. High-tech venture capitalist Tim Draper has vowed to spend up to $20 million on the voucher campaign - but polls say opponents outnumber supporters.

In Michigan, even Republican Gov. John Engler opposes a proposal to repeal the state's constitutional ban on public aid to private schools, then award $3,000 of tax money to each child withdrawn from low-scoring public schools. The Catholic Church, operator of the state's largest private school system, is urging worshippers to vote yes - while the teachers union is campaigning for a no vote.

We hope all the voucher plans are shot down, because they threaten to ruin public schools and damage democracy.

Bleeding millions of tax dollars away from hard-pressed public schools would devastate them, instead of curing their problems, as voucher fans claim. Also, pouring government money into religious facilities would violate a cornerstone of the Bill of Rights: separation of church and state.

Perhaps worst of all, vouchers would hurt democracy. Currently, public schools serve as a huge mixing place for all types of children - whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Indians, wealthy, poor, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus, irreligious, fundamentalists, gays, handicapped - the whole human spectrum. When youngsters deal with each other personally every day, they learn to respect varied classmates as individuals, and not react just to group labels.

But if each special interest is allowed to run its own separate schools on government money, American society might be Balkanized - fragmented into cliques suspicious of each other. Jehovah's Witnesses might start their own tax-supported schools. Or Klansmen. Or Polish descendants. Or Wicca witches. Or armed militia members. And every religious, racial and ethnic group.

Many parents want their children exposed only to people and influences they approve. The urge to put one's children into "safe," familiar, homogenous schools is strong. Opening a floodgate of government money for this purpose might spawn an endless array of special schools, dividing America into many camps, reducing common intermingling.

We think vouchers would hurt America.