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Some Christians, mainly Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants, have strongly supported the transfer of government revenue to religious schools. However, direct financial support has been unconstitutional, because of the principle of separation of church and state which is part of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. A recent technique that may avoid this conflict has been to promote "school voucher" programs at the state or municipal level. In this system, the government gives a voucher to parents that they may use to pay for part of the fee for enrolling a child in a private school. In effect, the state would be returning money collected from parents in the form of taxes for the public school system, so that they could help finance their child's education in a private school, either religious or secular. 

The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found in 2000-DEC that close to 96% of students enrolled in a voucher program for the 1999-2000 school year attended sectarian institutions. Thus, voucher programs indirectly finances religious schools with government funding. Public voucher plans seriously entangle the government and religious groups.

There have also been many private plans which have given such vouchers to parents. 

When evaluating government plans, courts have traditionally cited:

bullet The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which has been interpreted by the courts as implying a wall of separation between church and state.
The historic Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) U.S. Supreme Court case which laid out the so-called "Lemon Test." Under Lemon, any statute:
  1. Must have a secular legislative purpose; 
  2. The primary or principal effect of the statute must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and 
  3. The statute must not foster excessive government entanglement with religion. 

Nathan Lewin commented:

"On the one hand, over the years the [U.S. Supreme] Court has permitted programs that reimbursed parents of religious-school children for public-transportation expenses, that loaned secular textbooks to students in religious schools, that provided construction and other grants to religious colleges for secular purposes, and that reimbursed religious schools for the expense of administering and grading standardized tests. On the other hand, the Court has struck down government programs that provided remedial-education classes taught by public-school teachers to religious-school students, that loaned secular instructional materials and equipment—such as maps, film projectors, and lab equipment—to religious schools, and that reimbursed low-income parents for tuition expenses at private schools." 1

In mid-2002, the U.S. Supreme Court declared a Cleveland voucher plan constitutional: It "...allows parents to receive tuition assistance to help their children escape failing public schools-in some cases, by attending private religious ones." Parents can also use the money to fund tuition at a secular private school. Social and religious conservative who favor weakening the wall of separation between church and state, and/or "strengthening parental control [over education], and [/or] weakening the government monopoly in education have applauded the ruling." 2 Those favoring the wall of separation between church and state were disappointed, as are those who favor a strong public school system. Taking some children out of a failing public school reduces the level of government grants to that school, driving it further into failure.

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Vouchers are a controversial topic:

bullet According to Time Magazine:

"Vouchers' supporters see them as a revolutionary instrument--capable, in the short run, of rescuing poor kids from bad public schools and, in the long term, of forcing that education system to compete in a free market. But critics say vouchers will destroy the public schools by turning them into repositories for America's unwilling, or unwanted, schoolchildren. And they say that voucher programs, especially ones that include religious schools, will Balkanize America by abandoning its common core of teachings and traditions." 3

bullet Vouchers are seen by some parents in a positive light because they lower the cost of educating their children in private schools. They would no longer have to fully support both the public and their private school systems in order to send their children to be educated outside the public system.
bullet Some parents value placing their children in a religious school because they have greater control over their religious education. Their children will not be exposed to fellow students who follow other religions. The school curriculum is unlikely to consider other faith groups as equivalent to the families' religion.
bullet A study of Cleveland's pilot program by researchers at Harvard University showed that two-thirds of the "voucher parents were 'very satisfied' with the academic quality of their children's private schools, compared with only 30% of parents who stuck with public schools." 3
bullet Voucher programs are seen as a threat by many public school boards because they feel that both their funding and the number of their students would be reduced. Private schools may remove students selectively from the public system in a process called "cream-skimming." This would leave behind a larger percentage of students who are handicapped, disabled, unmotivated, disruptive or with poor academic achievement. It would also remove highly motivated parents from involvement with the public school system.
bullet Some view public schools as inherently superior to private schools because they expose their students to a wider range of cultures, religions, traditions, races, economic levels, etc. Adam Cohen of Time wrote:

"Public schools have long held the promise of being America's great equalizer, mixing students of different races, classes and religions in a single student body. At their best, public schools have united diverse groups of students, many of them immigrants, by passing on the nation's shared civic heritage, from George Washington to George Washington Carver. Public schools have the ability to teach democracy simply by being open to all children, and regarding them--and their backgrounds and religions--as equally worthy. 'Nobody claims private schools can't teach tolerance, mutual respect and nondiscrimination,' says Princeton political science professor Amy Gutmann. 'But in public schools, they are taught as much by the mixing of students as they are by the curriculum.' " 3

bullet In generally, religious groups have difficulty handling rapid change, particularly on items related to morality. This is reflected in the curriculum of the schools that they sponsor. Some sectarian private schools have only slowly responded to major moral changes in society: bringing an end to racial segregation, granting equality to women, granting equality to persons with homosexual or bisexual orientation, etc. The result is that they graduate students whose moral standards are not well matched to the expectations of the culture in their future life as adults.
bullet During a pilot study in Milwaukee WI, some religious schools resisted having to follow Wisconsin's Pupil Nondiscrimination Act. This prohibits schools from discriminating against students on the basis of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or physical, mental, emotional or learning disability. The state excused them from meeting the requirements of the Act.
bullet Voucher programs funnel tax money into private schools, but generally do not require these schools to meet financial, achievement, attendance, tolerance, or quality accountability standards. Private schools also do not have to be responsible to the parents of their students.
bullet Vouchers represent a serious challenge to the separation of church and state. In the late 1990s, a study of a pilot voucher programs in  Cleveland OH found that 80% of the vouchers were used to fund attendance at private religious schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that a New York state voucher system was unconstitutional because its primary effect was to advance religion. 4 The state had given tuition reimbursement payments to low-income parents whose children attended private schools. In about 85% of the cases, the schools were religious in nature.
bullet Depending upon how the legislation is worded, government vouchers may represent a snare to private schools. Referring to the "GI Bill for Children" a federal voucher plan proposed by the Bush administration in 1992, the conservative Heritage Foundation warned that the plan

"easily could lead to onerous federal regulation of private schools...The Bush proposal seeks to subject private schools to the onerous array of federal civil rights laws. The bill lists six civil rights statutes and states that 'a school or provider of supplementary academic services that receives scholarship funds under this Act shall, as a condition of participation under this Act, comply with the statutes.' " 5

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Nathan Lewin, "Are vouchers constitutional?: Yes, and here's how to design them," Policy Review, 1999-JAN-FEB, #93. 
  2. "Religious Liberty Update-School Choice In, 'Under God' Out?," CultureFacts, a news release from the Family Research Council, 2002-JUL-5.
  3. Adam Cohen, "A first report card on vouchers: Cleveland's program gets mixed grades. Parents are happier, but students may not be learning more. And vouchers may be dividing the city," Time, 1999-APR-19. Online at:
  4. Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist (1973), 413 U.S. 756. 
  5. Allyson Tucker, "Assessing Bush's school voucher plan," The Heritage Foundation, 1992-JUL-20. See:

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Copyright 2000 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAR-15
Latest update: 2006-DEC-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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