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December 03, 2003

Let Politics Design School Vouchers

The Supreme Court is deciding whether financial aid must be provided to students studying theology-- the idea being that refusal to provide equal funding is a burden on the free exercise of religion.

There is some force to this argument, but it's a slippery slope to meaning that churches would likely end up taking over large chunks of government-funded charity and other measures, if they could file lawsuits every time society expressed a preference for providing services under secular auspices.

Last year, I sided with religious schools in support of upholding voucher funds going to religious schools, but I did so in the context of supporting democratic politics over judicial power:

Not that I support most voucher systems in practice, since they are usually underfunded and designed to do little to really help poor kids looking for alternatives. But the Supreme Court decision didn't mandate vouchers-- they just said that we are democratically allowed to vote for them, or not vote for them. That democratic principle seems the best one in this area.
Similarly, that democratic principle is the best one here. Let politics establish the best balance between secularism and religious funding.

As was pointing out during debate yesterday, a mandate for including religious instruction within government funding might ironically undermine voucher proposals overall:

Throughout the argument, both Justice O'Connor and Justice Kennedy worried aloud that a decision striking down the Washington program would have the effect of compelling any state that offered tuition vouchers in a "school choice" program to include religious schools, regardless of whether the state wanted such an inclusive program.
So by limiting political options, the decision might kill school choice altogether.

Opponents of vouchers might secretly cheer for the religious side to win this case, since it might make privatization of public services so controversial in including churc h involvement that preserving direct state control of all services would become the only viable political option.

I'm against vouchers in most practices, but this illustrates again why I'm against court intervention, since it often makes reasonable political compromise impossible.

Update: I wrote more detail on my position on this last year, so here are some links: here, here, here, here, and here.

Posted by Nathan at December 3, 2003 08:25 AM