Public Funds For Religious Schools Would Be No Sin

President Bush has proposed giving private schools the opportunity to compete against public schools for taxpayers' dollars. Although some cities and states already have programs that provide limited funds to private schools, there is considerable disagreement over whether schools supported by religious organizations should be allowed to compete for public funds, whatever the plan.

Many people believe that including parochial schools would violate the separation of church and state embedded in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which begins: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." But I believe that public funds should be available to religious-supported schools, provided that they are available on equal terms to all private schools.

Constitutional specialists differ over exactly what James Madison and the other proponents of the First Amendment meant, although they clearly wanted to gurantee freedom of worship. I am no constitutional expert, but I take the view that the founding fathers appreciated the advantages of competition for religious ideas and beliefs and added this amendment to safeguard against the kind of established church that dominated England at that time. Those beliefs that best satisfied the spiritual needs of the people would thrive in an open competitive environment where there is no state religion.

This "free-market" view of the First Amendment implies that public funds could be spent on the secular activities of parochial schools if they have to compete against public or other private schools. It also helps explain an inconsistency: Many programs do allow public funds to go to secular activities of religious groups. For example, patients can use medicaid and medicare benefits at church-sponsored as well as other private hospitals. And any religion that meets very minimal criteria can qualify for nonprofit status and gain exemption from local property and other taxes and regulations.

There are also precedents for including religious-sponsored schools in an education voucher system where taxpayers pay the tuition at schools chosen by students. The post-World War II G.I. bill covers the tuition of veterans at parochial colleges and universities. College students who receive Pell grants, federally backed loans, and other public support can use them to attend religious-sponsored colleges.

Some U.S. Supreme Court decisions indicate that the judiciary will allow public funds to be spent on parochial schools. For example, in Mueller vs. Allen in 1983, the court supported the constitutionality of a Minnesota law allowing parents to deduct their children's parochial-school tuition from their state income tax--clearly an indirect subsidy. Earlier decisions allowed public funds to subsidize the transportation of students to parochial schools and to pay for their secular textbooks.

Despite these decisions, there is still strong opposition to including parochial schools in an educational voucher program at the elementary and high school level. Some fear that students who attend parochial schools will be subjected to religious indoctrination. But a program could specify that no school would qualify for public funds if it required attendance at religious services or instruction in a particular religion. And public funds would be limited to secular subjects and philosophical aspects of religious studies.

Opponents of the inclusion of parochial schools also believe that it would increase the degree of segregation of students by race or creed. One important study, the book High School Achievement by James S. Coleman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago, finds that 90% of all students at Catholic high schools are from Catholic families. But they also show that these high schools are less segregated by race and income than are public high schools. Of course, parochial and other private schools that participate in a voucher or other school-choice program would not be allowed to discriminate in the selection of students on the basis of race, religion, or family background. Their right to exclude troublesome students could also be curtailed.

HIGH ACHIEVERS. If religious-sponsored schools were inferior, the educational advantages of including them in a school-choice program would be dubious. But the study by Coleman and his colleagues concludes that Catholic schools on average provide better education than public schools. Students from all races and family backgrounds score much higher on achievement tests than do comparable students from public schools, even though average spending per student by Catholic schools is a great deal lower. The advantage is especially large among students from less educated and poorer backgrounds. Catholic schools do better partly because they involve parents and the community more closely in school activities.

Sooner or later, the need to upgrade the quality of education available to the poor and middle classes seems sure to force many communities in the U.S. to include private schools in a choice program. It would be a shame to exclude religious-sponsored schools, which offer a superior education.

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