The (Mis)education Of Sen. Lieberman: Why The Senate Must Reject The D.C. Voucher Expansion

Voucher subsidies violate religious liberty rights and distract us from the important work of education reform.

The battle to end Washington, D.C.’s controversial school voucher program is entering a critical phase.

A little background: The plan, pitched as an “experiment,” was initially authorized in 2004 for five years. Heavily promoted by the Bush administration, it passed the House of Representatives by a single vote six years ago on a night when many voucher opponents were away from the floor. Republicans held the vote open for more than 40 minutes to gather the necessary votes. It later cleared the Senate only as a result of a procedural move.

Since then, studies have shown that the program has been academically unsuccessful. It has also been marred by other problems – but ideologues in Congress won’t let it die.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced an amendment to the jobs bill that would reauthorize the voucher plan. For a while it looked like Lieberman’s amendment might get a floor vote, but for various reasons that fell through.

Undeterred, Lieberman is casting around for another vehicle to keep the voucher program alive. The rumor is he might even attempt to attach it to a bill authorizing funding for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Although often described as a plan to help students and wrapped in the euphemism of a “scholarship program,” the voucher scheme is in reality little more than a massive subsidy to religious and other private schools.

Changing demographics and ongoing economic uncertainties have led many religious groups, primarily the Catholic hierarchy, to shutter many private schools. This has distressed church leaders and some of their political allies. In that respect, the voucher plan is little more than a massive, taxpayer-funded bailout of religious institutions.

It’s worth remembering that religious schools play by their own rules. They can hire and fire staff according to religious criteria. If a teacher’s religious, political or personal choices offend the governing clerics, that teacher can be dismissed with no questions asked and no legal recourse available.

Religious schools can even discriminate against students. In Boulder, Colo., a Catholic school recently told the parents of a preschool student that the child is not welcome to return next year. What did the preschooler do to bring down such punishment? Nothing. School officials want the child out because the parents are lesbians.

Several teachers at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School are angry over the decision, but school officials refuse to back down. The Archdiocese of Denver issued a statement reading, “Parents living in open discord with Catholic teaching in areas of faith and morals unfortunately choose by their actions to disqualify their children from enrollment.”

Private religious schools have the right to promulgate discriminatory rules like this, but the taxpayer shouldn’t be expected to subsidize such short-sighted and cruel policies.

Noxious forms of discrimination like this are just one reason to oppose vouchers. Voucher subsidies also violate religious liberty rights and distract us from the important work of education reform. No one disputes that D.C. has some troubled public schools. We need a solution that works for all of the kids – not a cop-out that allows a small percentage to attend religious institutions where they are indoctrinated courtesy of the taxpayer.

The Senate must reject Lieberman’s gambit.