Congress considers nationwide voucher program

Tuesday, October 19, 1999

Congress is considering another bill to provide vouchers enabling some students to attend private schools, including religious ones. Last year, President Clinton vetoed a measure that would have granted poor parents in the District of Columbia vouchers to send their kids to private schools in the area.

Earlier this month, Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, introduced the Academic Emergency Act, which he said would provide federal assistance to help children nationwide to escape “failed public schools.” Armey also was one of the main sponsors of the District of Columbia Student Scholarship Act, which would have provided about 2,000 D.C. students with vouchers to attend area private schools.

Armey’s new bill would allow governors to submit to the federal government a list of public elementary schools that have records of “poor performance by failing to meet minimum academic standards.” States would then receive federal grants from which they could provide vouchers of at least $3,500 to parents of eligible students for private school tuition.

The measure also specifies that private religious schools could participate in the program without giving up their religious missions. Although under the bill participating schools could not discriminate against students on the basis of race, color, national origin or sex, an exemption is provided for religious schools. Moreover, religious schools, the bill states, cannot be required “to remove religious art, icons, scripture, or other symbols” to receive the federal grants.

“I am confident that providing choice in education will alleviate the current academic disaster that has befallen too many of our public schools — and prevent future disasters,” Armey said upon the bill’s introduction. “The Academic Emergency Act represents my determination to free trapped children from failing schools. It pits innovation and creativity against bureaucracy and stagnation.”

Civil rights groups that have fought state voucher plans as violations of the separation of church and state were quick to label Armey’s latest attempt irresponsible.

“Representative Armey can try to dress this up anyway he pleases, but in the end his proposal represents nothing more than another voucher scheme designed to divert public funds to religious and private schools,” said Terri Schroeder, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union.

People for the American Way, a liberal civil rights advocacy group, derided the bill as “its own natural disaster” that would “rip through our cities and towns and decimate our public schools.”

Armey and other co-sponsors argue that the federal government does not undermine the Constitution or public education by providing vouchers to parents to enable their children to attend private schools. Vouchers essentially operate in the same way “that low-income individuals use food stamps to buy food or housing vouchers to pay rent,” Armey said. Citing a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision, voucher proponents argue the Constitution permits government-funded vouchers to be used at religious schools.

Last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in Jackson v. Benson that Milwaukee’s voucher program did not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Courts in Maine and Ohio, however, have ruled that similar voucher programs do run afoul of the separation of church and state.