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Pandora's Box of Vouchers

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Two voucher bills are currently making their way through Congress, the Scholarship for Kids Act and the CHOICE Act, and while these aren't the first attempts to legislate vouchers, the extreme nature of these bills is reinvigorating the debate surrounding government funding of private schools.

Besides the fact that vouchers drain the public education system of funds and deprive both students and teachers of vital civil rights protections, most of the tax dollars involved goes to private religious schools. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 80 percent of private school students attend religiously affiliated private schools.

This entangles government and religion in a way that violates the intent of Jefferson's Wall of church-state separation in more ways than one. It leads to the state inappropriately funding religious schools through vouchers, but at the same time exempting these schools from certain laws preventing child abuse, or protecting disabled kids, or preventing discriminating in hiring and admissions policies. And, as a result you have public money being used in this unsafe and discriminatory way. Think about how this works in application:

• Jewish parents providing their tax dollars to fund Catholic schools that exclude their children from attending.

• Lesbian couples providing their tax dollars to fund Baptist schools that disallow them from becoming a teacher there.

• Atheists providing their tax dollars to fund conservative Christian schools that teach children that atheism is evil.

The religious right and conservative Catholics are pushing voucher initiatives like these because they see them as benefiting themselves. Certainty the bulk of the existing recipients are Christian schools. But what the religious right doesn't realize is that once they've opened the door to vouchers and the funding of religious education that other religions will want in on that government money too.

This situation is a nightmare for the religious right, who only want religious education in our schools if the religion being talked about is the one that they identify with. And they are alarmed that groups like Muslims would be able to use the government money to fund Islamic schools. One of the best examples of this is the case of Louisiana State Representative Valarie Hodges, who initially supported a voucher bill proposed by her governor because it would allow money to go to private Christian schools. When she found out that all religious groups, including Muslims, could use government money to fund religious instruction she pulled her support from the bill, stating "unfortunately it (the bill) will not be limited to the Founders' religion... We need to ensure that it does not open the door to fund radical Islam schools."

Government funding of religion is just bad public policy, not only because it violates the separation between of religion and government, but also because it allows Islamaphobia and religious privileging to occur on a wide basis. Religious education is something best left for after-school hours, and sacrificing the public education system so that more children can learn about a god or a particular faith threatens the education of all our children and the constitutional principles upon which this nation was founded. While it might be tempting to peek inside Pandora's Box to see what vouchers can do, the health of our country demands we keep that box as tightly shut as possible.