The Common Good
November-December 1999

The (Church and) State of Our Schools

by Duane Shank | November-December 1999

Will there still be public education for your children's children?

The Supreme Court has accepted another case involving public aid to private schools. It will be the latest in a string of such cases that have left what an appeals court judge recently called a "vast, perplexing desert." And as usual in such cases, two issues become intertwined. One is the appropriate relationship between church and state, the other the quality of education in this country. Is the real issue at stake here further exegesis of the First Amendment, or is it our education system and the best way to improve it?

In the past year, a number of school-related cases have been moving through the courts, with contradictory results. The Wisconsin and Ohio state Supreme Courts have upheld voucher programs that include religious schools, while the Maine Supreme Court and the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled that tax funds cannot go to religious schools. A voucher plan has passed the legislature in Florida and failed in Texas. And in September a federal district judge in Cleveland issued a preliminary ruling that a voucher program "had no substantial possibility" of being upheld.

In the case taken by the Supreme Court, the federal Fifth Circuit Court ruled in a case from Louisiana that a federal program designed to provide funds for computers, audio-visual equipment, and library books to schools in low-income areas could not include religious schools. It also ruled that a program designed to provide special education teachers, including in religious schools, is constitutional. The distinction appears to be whether public funds go directly to religious schools.

The Supreme Court has been moving from a strict separation philosophy to one of neutrality, that the law should treat religious and non-religious entities equally. This current case will be closely watched to see how far the Court will extend that theory.

THE REAL ISSUE in the voucher cases is the future of our educational system. Every child, regardless of race, gender, or economic status, has the moral and legal right to a quality education. This is fundamental both to the well-being of the child and to the common good of the community. Our current educational system does not honor that right for many children. Those who promote school vouchers say they will correct this by allowing parents to send children to private schools, thereby improving their educational opportunities. One problem, critics say, is that only a small minority of students would benefit, while the public schools would continue to deteriorate.

As the parent of a high school student who has now spent 12 years in the D.C. public schools, I have seen public education at its best. It engages young people with the cultural and religious diversity of the community rather than separating them into private schools based on religion, elite academics, economic status, or other criteria. But these have been public schools with a high level of parental involvement and other factors that distinguish them from others. What do we do about those who are stuck in low-performing schools? How do we make real the right to a quality education?

Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, has proposed an experimental program where money would be put into some of the most promising efforts to reform public schools and into a voucher program. The results would then be compared to see which was most effective. George W. Bush has proposed a program whereby students in "failing" public schools would be given scholarships to be used either in home schooling, private schools, or another public school.

While our public education system needs improvement, most of our nation’s school systems are working and working well. It is mainly schools in areas of deep poverty—our largest inner cities and some depressed rural areas—that are not. And the fundamental reason is the economic condition of many children in those areas.

A recent editorial in Business Week noted, "The crisis in education is as much a social and economic problem as it is a teaching problem." The best way to fix our education system is to fix the problems in our society that underlie it. A society with hunger and homelessness, broken families and domestic abuse, and continued racial segregation in housing patterns is not likely to have a quality educational system. While we experiment with different ways of providing a quality education, the fundamental change must be in overcoming poverty. Only when children are granted the basic necessities of life, and when we rebuild our families and communities, will they truly receive a quality education.

DUANE SHANK is executive assistant at Sojourners.

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