In October 2019, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) joined with Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) in a renewed effort to extend the District of Columbia school voucher program indefinitely. Begun a dozen years ago during the George W. Bush Administration, the D.C. voucher plan is the only federally funded school voucher program in the country.
Feinstein’s ostensible reason for supporting these school vouchers is to help poor children. She seems unaware that a recent report showed that the D.C. voucher program does not improve student performance and probably lowers it. There are, of course, several state voucher programs in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, and Florida where there is no evidence that they improve education in general.
What is truly incomprehensible is the support by a female Democratic senator for having government force every taxpayer to support sectarian private schools, most of which indoctrinate students against women’s rights, especially in the field of reproductive health.
Senator Feinstein’s support for D.C. school vouchers is a betrayal of her own constituents. In 1993, California voters rejected a school voucher plan by 70 percent to 30 percent and did so again in the year 2000 by 71 percent to 29 percent.
Senator Feinstein’s move is also a betrayal of the voters in Washington, D.C., who in 1981 rejected a tax-credit school voucher program by the astonishing margin of 89 percent to 11 percent.
As a reminder, let us note that between 1966 and 2018, voters from Massachusetts to California and from Florida to Alaska voted down every scheme for diverting public funds to private schools by an average of two-to-one in thirty state referendum elections.
And that is just the beginning. School vouchers would divert public funds from our needy public schools to a growing proliferation of pervasively sectarian private schools—Catholic, evangelical, Lutheran, Baptist, Seventh-day Adventist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Jewish, Muslim, and so forth. This in turn would increasingly fragment our school population along religious, ideological, ethnic, ability level, social class, and other lines.
And every dollar diverted to private schools is a dollar less available for our struggling public schools, whose finances have been slashed in most states over the past dozen years or so.
We need to note that since economist Milton Friedman—a peculiar “atheist” who thought it was just fine for government to force all taxpayers to support religious institutions—concocted the voucher plan over fifty years ago, far more money has been spent promoting vouchers than in the defense of public schools (we might note also that Friedman was a “personal adviser” to the brutal Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile after 1973). The evidence of this is forty years of PDK opinion polls on education. During those forty years, fewer than one-quarter of people polled would give an A or B rating to our public schools nationally, but about 50 percent would consistently give an A or B to the public schools of their community, and about three-quarters would give an A or B to the public school attended by their oldest child.
It should be clear that over the years billions of dollars, from such sources as Betsy DeVos, have been spent denigrating public schools and teacher unions, while the teachers and other defenders of public education have been very hard put to come anywhere close to having the resources to defend our public schools.
Here’s the bottom line: The overwhelming majority of private schools seeking public support through vouchers are pervasively sectarian religious institutions. If our constitutional history means anything, it is that no person in America should be compelled by government to support any religious institution, his or her own or anyone else’s. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison made this very clear in the 1780s. And Benjamin Franklin put it very well when he wrote: “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
Our religiously neutral public schools, inadequately and unevenly funded though they are, are a treasure that we must fight to preserve and improve.
Republican lawmakers, federal and state, seem generally indifferent to defending the religiously neutral public schools that serve nearly 90 percent of our nation’s children. They tend to line up behind Trump, the utterly unqualified Betsy DeVos, and former Indiana governor Mike Pence, who spent years in state office going all-out to weaken public education and promote private religious schools. Democrats who generally support public education do not put as much effort into defending public schools as they should.
With creatures such as DeVos, the billionaire “Wicked Witch of Western Michigan,” expending endless energy to destroy our public schools, sabotage religious liberty and church-state separation, and fragment our society, we all have a lot of work to do.