Voucher Programs and the Constitutional Ethic
[Co-written with Cullen Merritt]
America’s public schools have not been exempt from the enthusiasm for “privatization” and contracting-out that has characterized government innovations over at least the past quarter century. A number of the issues raised by school voucher programs and to a lesser extent charter schools mirror the management and efficacy questions raised by privatization generally; however, because public education is often said to be “constitutive of the public,” using tax dollars to send the nation’s children to private schools implicates the distinctive role of public education in a democratic society in ways that more traditional contracting arrangements do not. We explore the unique role of primary and secondary public schools in forging a broad consensus about the nature and importance of America’s constitutional ethic, and growing concerns that vouchers, in particular, are failing to address, let alone facilitate, an ethic of citizenship.
Concerns about failing schools, especially in America’s poor urban neighborhoods, have triggered a number of reform efforts, including voucher programs in which government agencies issue certificates to parents who use them to enroll their children in a participating school of the parent’s choice. Schools are paid a predetermined amount for each voucher received (Levin 2001). The vouchers are used at private schools, the majority of which are religiously affiliated. In most programs, vouchers are awarded through a lottery system, in which eligible students—usually but not always determined on the basis of socioeconomic status—are pooled and recipients are chosen at random (Peterson et al. 1998).
Proponents argue that vouchers create a market-based educational system in which schools must compete for students, a process they believe incentivizes innovation and positive academic outcomes. (Levin and Belfield 2005). That belief is based upon economic models of supply and demand in which markets have been shown to benefit consumers; it ignores, however, both the civic mission of public education and the other ways in which education differs from ordinary consumer goods.
Voucher programs have generated acrimonious policy debates as well as a number of lawsuits. The debates are largely between those who believe that education is basically another variety of consumer good, in this case a set of skills preparing young people to enter the job market, and those who argue that education is also an important public good (Carnoy et al. 2003), and that private schools, particularly religious ones, are ill-equipped to fulfill education’s public mission.
TRANSMITTING THE CONSTITUTIONAL ETHIC
The civic mission of public schools includes, at a minimum, the teaching of America’s history and the transmittal of the country’s core constitutional values. Those values guide appropriate individual participation in a democratic polity; even more importantly, a sound and accurate civics education provides students with an understanding of the genesis and evolution of the rules that shape and constrain public service in the United States, and provide a standard against which to measure the performance of public officials and the bona fides of those who ask for their votes. At its best, civics education transmits the philosophical premises which undergird the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, premises which require allegiance to a particular code of conduct for citizens and public servants alike. That code defines the public good as essentially secular and rights-driven, and situates public service in a world that is increasingly multi-sectoral, multi-cultural, and international in scope. (Kennedy & Schultz, 2010) The public mission of the schools thus requires them to teach students about this country’s approach to and experience with the principles of democratic self-governance–what Kennedy and Schultz have called the Constitutional Ethic.
The politics of liberal democracies is the politics of faction, as Madison clearly understood. Individuals have economic interests, social goals, and political and religious beliefs that are affected by public policies and that motivate political behavior. When they lack a common understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of America’s approach to governance and fail to form an ethical commitment to those common undertakings, a diverse polity inevitably fragments into tribal components contending for power and influence. One of the concerns voiced by voucher program opponents is the participation in such programs of religious schools grounded in a wide variety of beliefs that conflict with important constitutional principles. Many of these schools teach students that the First Amendment does not require separation of church and state, and that biblical commands (for example, that women should be submissive and homosexual citizens shunned) take precedence in the public arena over jurisprudence confirming the constitutionality of very different civic imperatives. Opponents of voucher programs also point out that the racial segregation that has re-emerged as a result of some voucher programs (Witte 2000) is both socially undesirable and violative of America’s Constitutional Ethic.
During the 2013-14 academic year, ten percent of students in grades K-12 attended private schools, and those private schools comprised twenty-five percent of all schools within the United States (U.S. Dept. of Education). Just under eleven percent of these private schools, however, are nonsectarian; the remainder are religious. Catholic schools account for just over fifty-four percent of the nation’s parochial schools (U.S. Dep’t of Education). A growing but indeterminate number are fundamentalist Protestant schools that are reportedly teaching creationism, asserting a Christian biblical foundation for the U.S. Constitution, portraying evolution as an evil doctrine and using textbooks published by religious organizations that scholars criticize as wildly inaccurate. In most voucher programs, parents can choose to enroll their children in any of them.
Challenges to the constitutionality of providing government funding to religious schools were resolved, albeit not without criticism from legal scholars, when the Supreme Court decided Zellman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002. Then- Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that financial assistance via vouchers should not be considered a subsidy to religious schools, because the voucher is provided to individuals, allowing them to “exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious,” (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002), 663). According to Rehnquist, the fiction that the vouchers go to the parents (in most states, the parent chooses the school to which the voucher is sent, but is never actually given possession of the voucher) “the circuit between government and religion was broken, and the Establishment clause was not implicated.” Similar reasoning has doomed challenges brought under state laws prohibiting the use of public funds for parochial or other religious institutions. See e.g., Anderson v. Town of Durham, 2006; Meredith v. Pence, 984 N.E.2d 1213 (Ind. 2013), 1217).
Research studies evaluating outcomes of the various voucher programs now in effect have focused upon academic achievement, the consequences of diverting education funds from public schools in order to support private and religious ones, and a variety of social equity issues including the racial and socio-economic identities of voucher recipients. (CITATIONS) There has been little to no research investigating the impact of voucher programs on civic knowledge and cohesion, or any effort to measure their effect on the transmittal of the constitutional ethic.
A MODEST PROPOSAL
Given existing case law, it is unlikely that voucher programs will be ruled unconstitutional or otherwise illegal, and despite the growing number of negative evaluations of their academic outcomes, such programs continue to enjoy considerable political support. Assuming that private and religious schools will continue educating approximately ten percent of the American school-age population for the foreseeable future, lawmakers should, at a minimum, condition receipt of government funding on the schools’ obligation to fulfill the civic mission we expect public schools to fulfill. At present, however, there is no generally accepted understanding of the nature or importance of that civic mission, and no standards or procedures for assessing whether individual schools are creating knowledgable, responsible American citizens familiar with and prepared to observe the constitutional ethic.
In the following two sections, we supplement our definition of the Constitutional Ethic and suggest how government might ensure compliance with a requirement that it be taught.
The Constitutional Ethic
The U.S. Constitution is the basis of America’s legal system and civic culture; as it has operated over the years, it has shaped a distinctive value system, a framework within which Americans make public policy and operate our common institutions. Elected and appointed officials take an oath to uphold that constitutional system, an oath that implicitly obliges them to understand its most basic and important characteristics. Both citizens and policymakers need to know not just that the U.S. has a government of checks and balances, but why the system was constructed that way.
At its most basic, adherence to the Constitutional Ethic requires that American citizens, especially but not exclusively public officials and others in positions of authority, act in ways that are consistent with the basic premises of the country’s governing systems, and avoid acting in ways that would undermine them. For example, respect for due process guarantees would seem to rule out drone strikes on persons–especially but not exclusively Americans–who have not been afforded legal process to determine guilt or innocence. Respect for government’s obligation to treat citizens equally would seem to rule out efforts to marginalize members of minorities, or refuse them access to the institutional benefits enjoyed by other citizens. Respect for the right to vote, one of American citizens’ most fundamental rights, imposes an ethical obligation to refrain from vote suppression tactics or other partisan “dirty tricks.” Respect for the principle of free speech, protected by the First Amendment, imposes an ethical obligation to refrain from attempts to censor ideas of which some people disapprove.
Maintaining the integrity of a constitutional system requires broad citizenship education and civic participation consistent with the values of that system. As Keith Whittington has argued, leaving constitutional compliance to the courts is both empirically and normatively problematic. (Whittington, The Good Society pg. 60) Constitutional rules give rise to conventions, norms and customs that should guide American political behavior. As Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Foundation has written, increasing young people’s “informed engagement” in our national life requires school-based civic education. “After all, understanding and actively participating in our civic life was one of the principal missions given to American schools from the very beginning.”
Regulatory and Monitoring Proposals
The nature and extent of state oversight is a key, and often contentious, consideration when states enact voucher programs. Typically, private schools participating in voucher programs must comply with regulations regarding health and safety, but requirements for compliance with other standards, such as teaching certification, curriculum, accreditation, anti-discrimination and civil rights laws, number of school days, and recordkeeping and reporting vary by state. No voucher program of which we are aware imposes standards for civics education on participating schools. Because the civic mission of the nation’s schools is so fundamental to the continued operation of American democratic institutions, we propose that inclusion of a robust civics education curriculum be a condition of voucher program participation.
Ideally, private schools accepting vouchers would integrate curriculum content from the We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution Program within their curricula. Developed in 1987, the We the People education program is administered by the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education program; it was adopted by the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution as the principal education program of the federal Constitution’s bicentennial. The curriculum promotes civic competence and responsibility among elementary, middle, and high school students through “an innovative course of instruction in the history and principles of the U.S. constitutional democracy.” Through the curriculum, students gain insight into (1) the philosophical and historical foundation of the American political system, (2) how the framers created the Constitution, (3) how the Constitution has evolved to further the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence, (4) how the values and principles embodied in the Constitution shaped American institutions and practices, (5) the rights protected by the Bill of Rights, and (6) the challenges the American constitutional democracy may face in the twenty-first century.
Multiple studies have found that students who have participated in the We the People program score significantly higher on tests of civic knowledge compared to their peers, especially in the areas of understanding and respect for the rule of law, political attentiveness, civic duty, community involvement, and commitment to government service, among others (e.g., Leming 1996; Owen and Schroeder 2017; Owen Schroeder, and Riddle 2016; Owen 2015a; Owen 2015b). Participating voucher schools in states electing not to adopt the We the People curriculum would be allowed to develop their own civics education curricula, or to select another existing program, subject to evaluation and approval by the state’s board of education.
It is one thing to require that schools participating in state voucher programs provide adequate and accurate civics education, assuming that such a requirement is politically feasible. Ensuring that the schools comply with that requirement is another, especially since many states have exhibited a startling laxity in monitoring compliance even with basic health and safety requirements.
At a minimum, private schools participating in voucher programs should be required to demonstrate compliance with applicable civics education regulations by maintaining records documenting class participation in the civics curriculum in applicable grade levels on a yearly basis. Schools should also report student performance in civics-related courses.
Acceptance of a voucher by a private school should be subject to that school’s compliance with certain basic requirements. At a minimum, school buildings should meet relevant code requirements and fire safety standards; teachers should be able to offer evidence that they are equipped to teach their subject matter; and the school should both teach and model foundational constitutional values and behaviors. Ideally, schools receiving public funds should not be permitted to discriminate on the basis of race, disability or sexual orientation (religious schools have a constitutional right to discriminate on the basis of religion in certain situations, although they do not have a right to do so on the taxpayer’s dime) and should be required to afford both students and staff at least a minimum of due process. At present, we are unaware of any voucher program that requires these commitments.
A long line of political theorists have described citizenship as a process of sharing, of forming community around basic values and ethical principles held in common. There are few public issues that do not presuppose a civic understanding of, and broad agreement with, a common purpose, a shared vision of the public good. A constant tension between the public or common good and a commitment to individual rights is a truism of Constitutional law and political debate, and an exploration of that tension should be an explicit part of any civics curriculum.
A quotation from Stephen Macedo is relevant to this issue of teaching the Constitutional Ethic:
Talk of diversity and difference too often proceeds without taking adequate account of the degree of moral convergence it takes to sustain a constitutional order that is liberal, democratic, and characterized by widespread bonds of civic friendship and cooperation.” (Macedo, 2000, 2)
Voucher proponents define the public purpose to be served by education solely as the achievement of a level of academic competence sufficient to sustain economic growth and make America competitive in the global marketplace. We quarrel with this definition. We argue that schools funded by tax dollars, whether public or private, should be contractually obligated to foster the Constitutional Ethic, and that the public good requires more than the transmittal of literacy and technical knowledge sufficient to support economic growth and individual self-sufficiency. It also requires the creation and perpetuation of a political community steeped in the Constitutional Ethic and prepared to contribute to the process of creating unum from our pluribus.