Wrestling With Vouchers: The Tag-Team Strategy

If you watched President Bill Clinton's State of the Union Address on Jan. 19, you probably saw two men sitting behind him on the dais. One face was familiar -- Al Gore, the vice president. But the other is still virtually unknown -- Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, the new speaker of the House. With the resignation of Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston's short-lived status as speaker-to-be, the unknown Hastert became the chosen one.

Hastert has been in the House since 1986, but if you're like most Americans, you never heard of him until six weeks ago. He has a reputation as a consensus-builder, but don't mistake that for political moderation. Although Hastert is often referred to as a "former high school wrestling coach," he doesn't seem to be doing much wrestling with issues these days. He has a 100 percent Christian Coalition voting record and has been a staunch supporter of private school vouchers, a school prayer amendment, anti-abortion proposals, defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and other Religious Right pet projects.

Shortly after his selection as speaker, Hastert announced he would meet with Cardinal Francis George in Chicago to discuss how to aid ailing Catholic schools in the area. As Hastert put it, "When we talk about education, we talk about education for all children, public and private."

This suggests a parity that is a constitutional and public policy fiction. Many believe the Constitution protects the right of Americans to possess firearms, but few advocate that the bands of militia roaming the Idaho wilderness deserve the same publicly financed ammunition as the Marine Corps. Similarly with education, the Supreme Court squarely decided in 1925 that religious groups can establish private school systems as alternatives to public schools, but the justices have never indicated that all taxpayers must provide revenue for them.

Contrast Hastert the coach with ex-professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, the newly installed Minnesota governor. Ventura is not an advocate of big government or excessive regulation -- he is irritated that he must pay a tax on his four hovercraft, which noisily cruise the lakes of his state -- but he does support public schools as a crucial government function that wouldn't be helped by private school vouchers.

On his official campaign website, Ventura noted, "I am a proud product of the Minnesota public school system. Instead of giving families vouchers, tax credits or deductions to help their children get into private schools, I believe we should be supporting our public school systems."

The views of Hastert and Ventura may be polar opposites, but at least both sound definite. But the views of many elected officials on the contentious voucher issue are more fluid. An incredible 41 states are likely to grapple with some form of religious school aid during this year's legislative sessions.

In some states, the danger of passage is minimal; the act of introducing voucher bills is merely a reminder to a portion of some representative's constituency that he or she would like to fund religious schools. In others, though, including Republican-dominated states like Texas and Florida, the voucher threat is dazzlingly real. (Various bills are expected in Congress as well.)

What does a national group like Americans United do to stem the voucher tide? Our work in Florida may give you some idea. In professional wrestling (which, of course, I never watch) there are "tag teams," where two or three wrestlers on a team change places in and out of the ring for maximum clout. We've adopted a similar strategy.

Several members of the AU staff have already visited Florida, since that state appears to be under serious threat from vouchers. Field Director Ken Brooker-Langston and I selected a Florida resident from a number of capable applicants to be a full-time coordinator of Americans United activity. Rosemary Dempsey, a seasoned grassroots organizer, is already crisscrossing the state.

Meanwhile, other staff members are taking on special assignments. Beth Corbin, AU's national grassroots organizer, was in the state to distribute literature and speak at conventions and at several churches as the anti-voucher campaign kicked into high gear last month. Julie Segal will be holding one of her popular legislative training sessions February 15 in Ft. Myers. I will be in the state participating in a public debate at DeLand's Stetson University, giving a community address in the Tampa area and doing television appearances that same month. Ken will return to the Sunshine State for church-related meetings as the anticipated vote gets closer. The Communications Department is already sending out sample op-eds and other anti-voucher literature. (In early January, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain distributed nationally a pro-con voucher piece in which I provided the "con" perspective.)

All of this activity, of course, doesn't guarantee that vouchers will be defeated in Florida. However, we can do no less than try. We just need to realize that our wrestling match with vouchers won't ultimately be over until the U.S. Supreme Court finds that taxpayer funding of religious schools is unconstitutional and the public understands that voucher boosters' claims of the great benefits of their schemes are as phony as some of those wrestling moves I don't watch on television.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.