By Edd Doerr
A November 1998 report from the U.S. Department of Education merits wide
attention. Mr. Doerr explains why.
ON 3 NOVEMBER 1998 the U.S. Department of Education released its final
report on Barriers, Benefits, and Costs of Using Private Schools to Alleviate
Overcrowding in Public Schools. The study was ordered by the
Republican-controlled Congress in September 1996. The findings of the
145-page report can be rather succinctly summarized as "Give us your money
and someof your kids, but not your rules."
Although this carefully researched report is intended to deal primarily with
the subject of its title, it bears so importantly and directly on the campaign
by the Religious Right and its secular allies to get tax support for sectarian
and other private schools through vouchers or other means that its findings
merit wide attention.
The basic premise of this study is that nonpublic schools, "in exchange for
tuition reimbursement," might be used to relieve overcrowding in large urban
areas. The 22 urban areas studied were Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, Dade
County (Miami, Florida), Dallas, Detroit, Duval County (Jacksonville, Florida),
El Paso, Houston, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee, Nashville,
New Orleans, New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland (Oregon),
San Antonio, and San Diego. These cities were selected from among 34
large-enrollment school districts because they had the worst overcrowding
Following is a summary of the report's major findings.
Some 3,000 nonpublic schools enroll 774,000 students in the 22 urban
communities - about 16% of all students in those areas, compared with less
than 11% nationally.
Catholic schools enroll 57% of nonpublic students in the 22 urban areas,
while 30% are enrolled in a variety of other denominational schools, and
13% are enrolled in nonsectarian schools.
Minority students amount to 43% of the nonpublic school enrollment in
the 22 cities, compared with 22% in nonpublic schools nationwide. That
43% is still well short of the 82% minority enrollment in the 22 cities’
Urban nonpublic schools reject 17% of the students who apply for admission,
in stark contrast to public schools, which accept all students. Unmentioned
in the report is the fact that a private school’s religious orientation
largely determines who applies in the first place. Christian families
are unlikely to seek to enroll their children in Jewish or Muslim schools;
Catholic families are unlikely to try to enroll their children in
fundamentalist schools, and so on.
Most denominational schools (86%), according to the report, would
not admit voucher-student transfers from public schools if they were
required to exempt the students from religious instruction or activities.
The executive director of Christian Schools International (Christian
Reformed or Calvinst schools) said his schools "would not allow the
exemption because every class is permeated with a Christian religious
viewpoint." Carl Moser of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod said
that Lutheran schools could not accept exemption because of their
commitment to "maintaining our mission and our spiritual nature,
which permeate our total school program." Rev. Bill Davis of the
U.S. Catholic Conference said that exemption "strikes at the very
nature of what a Catholic school is all about." Ageib Bilal of
the council of Islamic Schools in North America said that, in Muslim
schools, "religious instruction is mandatory," though "participation
in religious activities could be optional."
(One small flaw in the report deserves mention. The report
ignores the question of denominational schools’ using creedal and
lifestyle criteria in hiring and dismissing teachers, a fairly
common practice. It also fails to note that one reason nonpublic
schools appear to be cheaper to operate is that they pay teachers
less and provide them with fewer benefits.)
In addition to their unwillingness to exempt public school
transfer students from religious instruction and activities, most
nonpublic schools use admission processes not permitted by public
schools. Three-fourths require written applications; 73%, student
discipline records; 77%, interviews with students; 87%, interviews
with parents; 58%, standardized achievement tests; and 74%, "ability
to perform at grade level." Clearly, with a 17% rejection rate on
top of "admissions considerations," nonpublic schools practice
"skimming" to get "better" students and keep out problem students,
whom public schools must generally admit.
Further, 73% of nonpublic schools are "definitely" (46%) or
"probably" (27%) not interested in accepting "special-needs" children
- children with physical or mental problems or disabilities, who must
be accepted by public schools.
The bottom line, which nonpublic schools make abundantly clear,
is that about 92% of them would be willing to accept the transfer of
students from overcrowded urban public schools only if they were
allowed to maintain their current admissions, curriculum,
and religious instruction/activity policies. In other words,
"Give us your money, through vouchers, and some of your kids -
the ones we attract or choose to admit - but don't give us any rules!"
The preceding adds up to a pretty solid case against school
vouchers or using nonpublic schools to alleviate public school
overcrowding. Obviously, playing the game with the nonpublic schools’
rules would skim some of the "more desirable" students from public
schools and increase the percentage of expensive-to-educate students -
disciplinary problems and those with special needs - in public schools.
But there is more.
Paul Hill of the University of Washington conducted a study for
the U.S. Department of Education in 1998 on the costs of transferring
students from public to nonpublic schools. His estimate, which
includes tuition, registration and other fees, transportation,
categorical program services, and administrative costs and evaluations,
comes to $4,575 per student per year.
Hill's report also presents a blizzard of problems facing any program
that uses tax-paid vouchers to transfer public school students to
nonpublic schools. Here are a few of them: Would vouchers apply only
to low-income or to all students? How would students be assigned to
specific nonpublic schools? Would transfer students become private
school students or remain public school students? What happens to
students and schools if the overcrowding of public schools ceases?
Do the students return to public schools? Would all students in an
overcrowded district be eligible for vouchers, or only those in
individual crowded schools? How much government supervision, if any,
would accompany the vouchers? How would a transfer program affect
students already attending nonpublic schools? Could we have nonpublic
classes in which a third of the students got vouchers and tax-paid
transportation while their classmates did not? What criteria would
nonpublic schools have to meet to qualify to participate in the
transfer program? How do you deal with the fact that some cities
experience overcrowding only in elementary schools while others
experience it only in secondary schools?
Near its conclusion Hill's report notes, understatedly, that there
are those who view a voucher plan to relieve public school
overcrowding as "a test case for a more comprehensive private
school voucher program."
The Department of Education report on using private schools to
alleviate overcrowding ends with a consideration of constitutional
issues, its weakest section. Even though it shows the pervasively
sectarian nature of most nonpublic schools, it cautiously avoids
taking a clear stand that school vouchers would violate the First
Amendment. Curiously, it also makes no reference to the state
constitutions, most of which clearly forbid direct or indirect
tax aid to religious schools.
Though its conclusion is somewhat ambiguous and weak, the
Department of Education report itself is a powerful argument against
school vouchers or using nonpublic schools to alleviate public school
overcrowding. In the case of vouchers, the remedy is worse than the
disease. It would harm public education, spur social fragmentation,
subsidize sectarian indoctrination, dilute public control over public
spending, cost a great deal of money that could be better spent building
new public schools and rehabilitating old ones, further entangle religion
and politics, and create a gigantic administrative nightmare. Vouchers,
under whatever rationale, are one can of worms best left unopened.
EDD DOERR is president of
Americans for Religious Liberty. This article appeared in the
Phi Delta Kappan, June 1999.