Politics & Policy

School Choice & The Founding Fathers


a judge in Ohio says that giving vouchers (read scholarships) to parents is unconstitutional because the parents have tried to get the most value for their money. You see, for the money these poor, mostly black, people received, parochial schools are by far the best bet. So the voucher system, Judge Oliver ruled, “advanced religion,” and was therefore unconstitutional (for more, see today’s Six Questions with Heritage Analyst Nina Shokraii [Link defunct]).

The judge’s decision was great, except for the fact that it was stupid — on historical, political, and moral grounds.

Among educated folks, there is perhaps no issue that makes people say silly things more than the establishment clause of the First Amendment (besides, of course, Bill Clinton’s pants). The current myth — one most Americans seem to believe — is that the Founding Fathers did not want American public institutions to be stained in anyway by the muck of religion. Some clever liberals will even quote some bit of Jeffersonian twaddle as if it represented the thinking of all the founders — when in reality it probably only represented what Jefferson was thinking between breakfast and lunch on a hot Tuesday in July. A Know-Nothing candidate for Congress once commented that Jefferson’s statements can be employed “every which-a-way; he writ so much.”

The prevalence of this myth is not entirely the fault of the American people; the Supreme Court has helped by creating a huge conceptual mess. In 1962 the Court ruled that a New York City public school prayer was unconstitutional.

This is the whole, free-society-threatening shebang: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.” Man, it’s amazing we didn’t have Episcopalian mullahs shouting morning prayers in their tennis shirts and khakis from every rooftop with that kind of religious tyranny running unchecked in the land.

The court ruled that the establishment of religion clause “means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another…. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.”

Not since Senator Tom Harkin last opened his mouth on a weighty issue has there been more official-sounding muddled thinking.

The Founding Fathers did not consider religion alien from good government. In fact they considered it to be essential to it. Their views were shaped by the times they lived in (and my views on this topic were largely shaped by the writings of M. Stanton Evans, from whose various works I’ve collected most of my examples).

In South Carolina the state constitution of 1778 asserted that “the Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed . . . the established religion of the state.” It also declared that “no person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.” The Maryland Constitution of 1776 mandated “a general and equal tax for the support of the Christian religion.” The established church of Massachusetts wasn’t dissolved until 1833. It wasn’t until 1877 that New Hampshire rescinded it’s requirement that you be a Protestant to serve in the legislature. The evidence that the Founders were committed to both religious liberty and a religious way of life is so overwhelming it’s stunning that people can argue otherwise. Of course, you were free to be an atheist or a pagan, but it was assumed that it would be much more difficult to be those things and a good citizen.

Now I don’t agree with a lot of these things. But what the Founders were afraid of was that the Federal government might establish a State Church along the lines of the Church of England. A State Church would have certain powers and privileges that other religious institutions would not. Indeed Madison’s original amendment dealing with this issue read : “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief, nor shall any national religion be established….” The key word there is “national.” Madison et. al. wanted to protect smaller churches from being crowded out by big national ones. Nobody was talking about sanitizing the public square of all religion.

The second problem with the Judge’s decision in Ohio is that it is has resulted in a great deal of sympathy for school choice. Last week the New York Times weighed in with an article that could have appeared just as easily in the Washington Times. Telling a whole bunch of poor black families that they can’t use scholarships to get the best education possible for their kids is not a political winner. Indeed, school vouchers sound very liberal. Can’t you imagine Teddy Kennedy, say circa 1977, calling for the federal government to dole out cash to poor parents so they could send their kids to private school?

In fact, the logic of the Left — such as it is — is so profoundly contradicted by their position on school choice, it’s staggering. We hear endlessly that health care is a right. We are told that rich people shouldn’t get better medicine than poor people. We are also constantly admonished for not weeping enough “for the children.” (I am so sick of “the children” as a political class and cudgel I cannot begin to tell you.). But hey, I’m not a member of the Left. So, if these things are true — if “the children” should be spared no expense, denied no accommodation; if cash entitlements are a right — then why shouldn’t kids get cash for better schools?

That, of course, is the moral problem with the anti-school choicers. If public schools still worked, I would still support the public schools, as a conservative. As a generalization, the public schools stink, like a dead mule in a parking lot. Worse yet, low-income minority kids get the tail end of this mule. That’s not right. There is no principled constitutional, moral, or political reason to fight school choice. If the Founders could see the current state of the schools, they would be crying like that Indian in the pollution commercial. And if they could read that 1962 Supreme Court decision, they’d be grabbing their guns.


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