Charleston Gazette editorial, May 6, 1999

By James A. Haught

Wrecking public schools

REPUBLICAN politicians everywhere are pushing vouchers as a way to pour taxpayer money into church schools.

Gov. Jeb Bush persuaded the Florida legislature to pass a plan to give students $3,000 to $25,000 each to spend on the private schools of their choice.

"I will sign that bill with a smile on my face," Bush said.

But the biggest smiles will be worn by Catholic and fundamentalist leaders, who stand to gain billions in public funds for their religious schools.

If vouchers become widely available, Moonies, Krishnas, Mormons, Scientologists, Wiccans, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. - and maybe Klansmen and militias - may rush to create schools for their own children, knowing that taxpayers will pick up the tab.

"We see this as a clear violation of the Constitution," said Joe Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"You cannot force taxpayers to pay for private religious schools, and that's what this program does."

However, the U.S. Supreme Court, dominated by appointees of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, has allowed some government funding for religion - so the voucher system might survive a court challenge.

Meanwhile, others fear that public schools will be crippled as billions of dollars are bled off.

Private schools can choose to admit only bright, obedient students, but public schools must take the learning-impaired and unruly - with diminished budgets.

Public schools foster democracy because children must study alongside youngsters from varied backgrounds. But vouchers could divide America into cliques, letting parents send their children only to schools fitting their social group.

Melinda Anderson of the National Education Association said vouchers "may well help some students, but at the expense of the majority."

In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wants $12 million for a city voucher program. The New York Times called it a dreadful idea that "would drain both money and attention from the public school system at a time when the schools are struggling desperately to meet strict new education standards."

The Times said New York should improve public education, rather than "waste time and money on a proposal that will leave Giuliani open to accusations that his main education priority is scoring points with the Republican Party rather than the city's schools."

We hope the voucher movement is shot down in court - and if it isn't, we hope Americans decide they would rather save public schools, instead of funneling tax money into church schools.