The Voucher Dilemma
Wouldn’t it be great to be rid of the double financial burden home schoolers and private schoolers bear for the education of their children? Why should we pay taxes for schools we don’t use and then bear the costs for our own educational programs?
The fundamental unfairness of this situation has led many home schoolers and most private schoolers to look with eager anticipation to the “school choice” movement. Through vouchers—or perhaps tuition tax credits—some see a solution to the problem of our double payment for education.
For a long time it was assumed that there was a constitutional barrier to government payment for private religious education. Two Supreme Court decisions opened the way for a program of government funding for religious education so long as such funding was a part of a larger program which funded secular and religious education alike. I was the attorney who handled the second of these cases, Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind, all the way from an administrative hearing in a run-down hearing room with metal desks and black linoleum to the grandeur and drama of the United States Supreme Court.
Now that it appears to be constitutionally possible to have a voucher program, the question becomes: Is such a program wise?
A lot has transpired since I began my representation of Larry Witters. I subsequently became involved in the famous legal war in Nebraska which challenged the government’s right to close down a Christian school that refused to have their teachers get a state teaching certificate. I defended seven fathers from that school who were jailed for 93 days because they sent their children to this school. There have also been hundreds of home school conflicts and dozens of home school court battles.
I have seen the hand of raw government power reach time and again into homes, schools, and churches. Getting too close to the government for any purpose gives me great pause—especially when it comes to kids and education.
The most troubling question about vouchers is whether government funding would bring government controls along with the money. As a conservative, I am philosophically opposed to the idea of giving away government money without proper accountability for how that money is used. Why would we ask for money for ourselves without strings attached when we would oppose any other government program which gives away money without accountability?
In Wyman v. James, 400 U.S. 309 (1971), the Supreme Court held it was constitutional for the government to require a warrentless “home visit” as a condition of receiving Aid For Dependent Children. In that case the Court said, “One who dispenses purely private charity naturally has an interest in and expects to know how his charitable funds are utilized and put to work. The public, when it is the provider rightly expects the same. It might well expect more because of the trust aspect of public funds, and the recipient, as well as the case worker, has not only an interest but an obligation.”
Vouchers will bring government strings. Vouchers should bring government strings.
The idea of tuition tax credits is arguably different. A tax credit means that the government is simply allowing us to keep a little bit more of our own money. Strings need not and should not be attached to a tax law which simply says that we get to keep some of our own money. We have been allowed to keep more of our own money based on our donations to churches for a long time. This tax policy has not been used as a means of getting government control over our churches.
Let me add one definitional note: By “tuition tax credits” I do not intend to imply that a tax credit should be issued for an amount greater than a person’s tax liability. If such an approach is used, it is really a government giveaway program which, again, necessarily involves government regulation. Nor should this approach be limited to bills for “tuition.” The money home schoolers spend on books and other educational materials should receive equal treatment.
We can go to legislatures and ask for tax credits for the money we spend to educate our children and yet demand “no strings attached” with a straight face and a clean heart. After all, it’s our own money.
However, the idea of tuition tax credits is at best an interim measure and may prove to be too dangerous. Frankly, a better approach is for the government to decide that the best way to help all families is simply to allow all of us keep more of our own money.
Even though we do our best to create a tuition tax credit program which allows us to keep more of our own money, ultimately we may face a choice between money and freedom. I have a good friend who is a pastor of a government-subsidized church in Switzerland. There are free churches in that country as well which receive no government funds. After many conversations I cam convinced that freedom is far more important than money in maintaining spiritual vitality in churches. There is little doubt in my mind that home schools and Christian schools in the United States would be better off in the long run to choose the path of the free churches in Switzerland. Spiritual vitality in our homes and churches is a priceless treasure which should not be lost for any amount of government aid.
Michael P. Farris