WASHINGTON, D.C. --One of the greatest minds of the 20th century
has, in the early years of the 21st century, been vindicated!
In the 1950s, Nobel-Prize winning economist Milton Friedman
began arguing for using vouchers to end the public school monopoly. I first
read his argument in "Capitalism and Freedom," his classic treatise on the
free society and the limits of government published in the early 1960s.
Since then, many of his economic ideas have gained wide acceptance where
once they were derided as antiques.
Even his prejudices in favor of limited government have gained
popularity. Yet for 40 years, vouchers have remained in limbo, thanks to the
alarums sounded by the school unions, the public school bureaucracies and
assorted representatives of the bien pensant. Their
most devastating argument has been that vouchers are unconstitutional. Thus,
no further discussion was necessary.
Aside from Friedman's ardor for debate (he has established a
foundation to promote vouchers) and that of a few like-minded advocates, the
discussion or possibly implementation of vouchers was stifled. However, on
June 27 in a decision that may be as historic as Brown vs. Board of
Education, the Supreme Court decided that there is nothing unconstitutional
about vouchers. Let the test begin. Let free citizens with vouchers send
their children to the schools of their choice. Let us see if competition
improves the schools of the land, as Friedman has been predicting.
The Court's decision (Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris) upheld
Cleveland's plan to give poor citizens government vouchers for tuition at
any school enrolled in the city's voucher program, whether it be public,
private or parochial. Opponents of the plan had argued that tax dollars
spent at parochial schools ran afoul of the Establishment Clause of the
Constitution, which opposes Congress' establishment of a religion.
The argument is historically ignorant, but that has not stopped
it from being used for generations to oppose government monies seeping into
religious institutions and more recently to kill off voucher programs.
I say it is a historically ignorant argument because, when the
Constitution was drawn up, some of the states already had established
religions. That is to say that state tax revenue was flowing in places such
as Virginia to an established church.
In the original 13 colonies, state taxes supported no fewer than
three religions, the Anglican, the Methodist and the Dutch Reformed. What
the Constitution's Establishment Clause was meant to do was to oppose
federal tax revenue establishing a national church in America. By mangling
the Founding Fathers' intent, beginning in the 1940s, so-called progressives
and liberals have managed to create the great and essentially phony
controversy between the separation of church and state.
Just last week, it led to the absurdity of a court in San
Francisco banning the Pledge of Allegiance in schoolrooms because of the
Pledge's passage that reads, "One nation under God." Now, however, questions
regarding the constitutionality of school vouchers have been laid to rest.
In his majority opinion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote
that the Cleveland voucher program was a "program of true private choice"
because parents, not the government, direct their tax-supported vouchers to
schools. Another argument, made by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, noted that
state money has been finding its way into religious institutions for years,
Pell grants to college students who go to religious institutions, Medicaid
payments to Catholic hospitals.
With the constitutionality of vouchers now established,
governments can get on with testing Friedman's belief that vouchers will
create competition for the school system and in so doing improve public
schools through competition. Always the optimist, Friedman does not believe
public schools have to be inferior schools.
In Milwaukee, Wisc., where a school choice program was launched
years ago despite arguments against its constitutionality, student test
scores in all grades have risen even in public schools. In Florida, where a
newer school choice program has been adopted, the number of failing public
schools dropped from 78 in the program's first year to four a year later.
Vouchers still face challenges in some states. Thirty-seven
states still have 19th century laws that forbid using tax dollars in
religious schools. Ironically, these laws were established not to "separate"
church and state, but more pointedly to hobble Catholic immigration to the
United States. The first was passed in Massachusetts in 1854. It was a
creation of that bete noire of all good liberals, the
Know-Nothing Party, which had come to power promising to "Americanize
America." Do the opponents of vouchers now join the side of the