School Vouchers Are About "Empowering the Poor"

So Says Richard Garnett, Notre Dame Law Professor

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SOUTH BEND, Indiana, JULY 7, 2002 ( School vouchers are not about government funding of religion, but about “empowering the poor” to obtain better education for their children, says a Catholic law-professor.

Richard Garnett is an associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame where he teaches First Amendment law. In this interview with ZENIT he talked about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of a school voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio.

The court’s decision allows taxpayer money to underwrite tuition at private or parochial schools if parents retain a wide choice of where to send their children.

Q: Is the school voucher issues mainly about civil rights or about government funding of religion?

Garnett: School choice, properly understood, has nothing to do with “government funding of religion,” and everything to do with empowering the poor, in a nondiscriminatory and religion-neutral way, to secure the quality education that is too often denied them in our urban government-run schools.

The Supreme Court made it clear — as it has many times over the course of the last 20 years — that the First Amendment is a limitation on government, not on citizens’ own religiously motivated choices. The Ohio education-reform plan is constitutional because it pursues a public good — education — by expanding parents’ options, not by singling out religious schools for special treatment.

Under our Constitution, the equal treatment of religion is not the “establishment” of religion. The fact that some parents use education vouchers to send their children to religiously affiliated schools no more violates the First Amendment than does the fact that many college students use federally subsidized loans to attend Notre Dame.

Q: A news service photo showed children at a Catholic school in Cleveland involved in a New Age-type Kwanzaa celebration. Do you worry that vouchers will hurt the identity of Catholic schools?

Garnett: There is good reason to be concerned that voucher programs will, in the name of “accountability,” be cluttered with intrusive and secularizing “regulatory strings.”

That said, there is nothing in the Constitution that requires a legislature to require that religious schools secularize themselves, or water down their religious mission, in order to mimic the government’s own schools. In fact, it would be unconstitutional for the government to discriminate against authentically religious schools — i.e., those schools that allow faith to permeate their curriculum and activities — in the operation of a voucher program.

Those who value the religious mission of Catholic schools, and who also want to promote the common good by increasing education opportunities for the poor, need to take care that choice programs are structured in such a way that the public can have confidence that voucher recipients are receiving a quality education, without compromising the essential vocation of these schools.

Q: Even if a Catholic school sours on its identify, isn’t it better that the schools at least serve poor kids?

Garnett: This is a difficult question. I do not think Catholic schools should “sour” on their religious identity — though, unfortunately, many have — though this does not mean that every Catholic school needs to look and function just like they did at a time when all of the students who attended were Catholic. And, Catholic schools might reasonably consider “serving poor kids” as an integral part of their identity.

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