Now that President Bush has proposed an education package that includes school vouchers for some children, a horde of critics has emerged to label the plan unconstitutional and destructive to public schools. A decade ago, I was a voucher opponent too and would have made similar arguments. Now I am a supporter, though not for the usual reasons.

The constitutional argument against school vouchers is receding—as it should, for it was never terribly convincing. Voucher opponents insist that granting public money to students seeking religious educations violates a core constitutional principle. But at the time of the framing of the Constitution, and throughout the 19th century, public money flowed freely to religious schools. The nation "discovered" the constitutional ban only toward the end of that century, when Catholic schools began seeking support. Only anti-Catholic prejudice can really explain the abrupt shift in national practice.

What's more, it is hard to find a rule based on the Constitution that would allow us to distinguish between a federal grant that helps a poor freshman attend a religious college and one that helps a poor 12th-grader attend a religious high school. But we do the first without murmur of complaint from strict separationists.

The more interesting antivoucher argument is the two-pronged public-policy concern. The first prong is the suggestion that vouchers would skim off the most talented or educationally ambitious students. This may be true. But those students can leave right now, if their parents can find the money. So what voucher opponents really seem to envision is a system in which the most talented wealthy can leave but the most talented poor students must stay. The fairness of this escapes me.

The second prong hinges on whether poor students who exit public schools get better educations. Statisticians run countless regression analyses to find out, but of course, what they are really measuring is the ability of students to take standardized tests. Certainly there are parents for whom high test scores are the principal goal of education, but that is a narrow, even vulgar, vision of what schools are for.

I support vouchers because I support parents. We should both applaud and assist the efforts of parents who try to shelter their children from the frequently wrongheaded behavioral pressures of American culture. Just over 75 years ago, the Supreme Court decreed that parents possess a fundamental right to make educational decisions for their children. For many parents, the exercise of that right has meant leaving the public schools—even if their dissatisfaction is moral rather than educational. There is no good reason that this fundamental right should be available only to wealthy parents.

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One of the many virtues of religious freedom is that children nurtured in differing religious traditions will bring true diversity to our democracy, keeping it healthy through a constant infusion of fresh ideas and the kind of tension that leads to helpful dialogue. Parents may reasonably decide that they can raise their children to be different only by shielding them from the public schools.

This is no knock against public schools. I am a proud alumnus of public education. But poor children should not be fated to follow a narrow educational path. A just nation would make available to them as broad a range of educational alternatives as wealthier children see.

On the other hand, if the Bush program passes, religious schools should not be hasty in accepting federal dollars. There are obvious risks. Looming largest among them is the danger that a school could become dependent on the money, only to discover later that troubling strings are attached. Money can be a drug, and every addict is at the mercy of his supplier. But that is not an argument against vouchers. It simply means that a religious school should be prayerful and discerning about taking federal money, in the same way that faith-based organizations should be cautious about feeding at the public trough through the mechanism of "charitable choice."

Let us give the program a serious try. Most of the world's industrialized countries offer some form of support to private religious schools, and nowhere have they replaced their public counterparts. It is unlikely that our experience here would be any different. In much of Europe, support for religious education is viewed as part of a package of profamily policies. (The same profamily sentiment explains European support for family-leave policies that are so controversial here.) We Americans should show as much faith in parents as do other parts of the world.

Related Elsewhere

Yahoo's full coverage area has regularly updated news articles and opinion pieces about tuition vouchers and other school choice issues.

Christianity Today's past articles on vouchers include:

Weblog: Appeals Court Says Vouchers Violate Church-State Separation (Dec. 13, 2000)

Religious Right Loses Power | A few victories, but more losses for conservatives. (Dec. 18, 2000)

School Choice Measures in Tight Races | Recent surveys show much opposition to voucher initiatives in California and Michigan. (Sept. 27, 2000)

Florida School Voucher Plan Struck Down by State Judge | Church-state issues not addressed in ruling. (March 24, 2000)

Judge Freezes Voucher Enrollments | (Oct. 4, 1999)

Editorial: Religious Schools Make the Grade | Give Wisconsin an A for saying no to secularist nonsense. (Aug. 10, 1999)

Voucher Plan Draws Mixed Reviews (July 12, 1999)

Voucher Victory | School-choice advocates win in Wisconsin, but can the movement gain momentum? (Sept. 7, 1998)

Judge Stalls Voucher Expansion (March 3, 1997)

Voucher Opponents Vow to Gut Cleveland Program (Oct. 28, 1996)
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See Stephen L. Carter's earlier column, "The Courage to Lose | In elections, and in life, there is something more important than winning." (Feb. 6, 2001)

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Civil Reactions
Stephen Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (2012), The Violence of Peace, The Emperor of Ocean Park, and many other books. His column, "Civil Reactions," ran from 2001 until 2007.
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