'School Choice' Passes a Test

If all you knew about modern American politics you learned from the recent debate on vouchers, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the issue conservatives really, really care about these days is what happens to low-income, inner-city kids. And that liberals despise, distrust, and scorn private schools as the bane to education in this country (although—shhhh!—it's a safe bet that many of their own kids aren't walking the halls of P.S. 52).

School vouchers are an interesting choice of battleground in the church-state culture wars, more smoke than fire since the public-funds-to-religious-institutions Rubicon was crossed long ago—think Medicaid prescriptions filled at the pharmacy of Catholic hospitals, or Pell grants for students at religious colleges. While the Establishment Clause is worth fighting for, the voucher case was the wrong issue.

While the education aspects raised in the Cleveland voucher case decided by the Supreme Court this summer are real and significant, the court's ruling—and much of the public debate since—may serve to obscure more than enlighten. The rhetoric has leaned toward the apocalyptic from both sides. Conservatives claim that vouchers will "save education in America" (they won't), while liberals see them as sounding the death knell for public education (not likely).

What vouchers do is provide hope—and the chance at a decent education—for a few families that might otherwise not be able to afford such options. What vouchers don't—and can't—do is fix what ails the system of public education in this country.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2002
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