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Flies in the Ointment

The Problem With School Vouchers

Supporters of school vouchers are jumping for joy over a Wisconsin Supreme Court verdict, handed down this summer, that permits tax dollars to be used at religious schools. They hope the decision will be the basis of a vast expansion of vouchers (four other states are debating this same question), eventually leading to a federal voucher program to "privatize" all education.

But there are flies in this ointment, enough to cause conservatives to rethink all the sympathies they have for vouchers. For the court did not rule that religious schools can receive government money with no strings attached. It ruled narrowly on the Milwaukee program itself, which only passed muster because of its rigid restrictions. Those who actually read the decision will find that in order to receive vouchers, religious schools will have to surrender all control over admissions and gut any doctrinal teaching.

What are the problems with vouchers? First, there is the eligibility criteria for students. The money is not available for the children of middle-class parents who actually pay the taxes that support the public schools. It is available only for those the government defines as "poor," the very group that already enjoys vast subsidies in the form of free medical care, housing, daycare, food, and cash. Vouchers represent not a shrinkage of this welfare state but an expansion, the equivalent of food stamps for private school.

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