Vouchers Within Reason: A Child-Centered Approach to Education Reform

[This review first appeared in The Foundation for Economic Education's publication, Ideas on Liberty, April 2003.]

Finally, someone on the Left has presented a thoughtful rationale for why the Left should favor vouchers: They can use the voucher to push religion out of private schools and further reduce the ability of parents to inculcate their values into their children.

In Vouchers Within Reason, James Dwyer tells us, "The great promise of school vouchers is that they provide a mechanism for accomplishing what some states once tried to do but ultimately found required more effort and resolve than they were willing to expend—namely, to rein in the practices of the worst religious schools, whose operators and parent clients vehemently and forcefully resist involuntary imposition of regulations." An animus toward religious schooling and parental influence over their children's education resides at the heart of Dwyer's argument. Those who share his animus are likely to find his arguments compelling, and others might give them serious consideration given Dwyer's position as an assistant professor of law at the College of William and Mary and his expertise in this area evidenced by his previous book, Religious Schools v. Children's Rights.

One of Dwyer's contentions is that most voucher arguments on both sides have been based upon adult-centered concerns rather than child-centered. In making his own proposal, he outlines requirements he claims are child-centered. However, those requirements (e.g., non-sexist teaching, rejection of at least some religious instruction, and inculcation of state-approved viewpoints) are based upon his own adult belief system and liberal, statist view. Dwyer totally misses the irony in his claim that what he advocates is child-centered rather than adult-centered, since his central concern seems the best interests of the state -- which was under adult control last time I checked. He writes, "…the state must ultimately decide what the interests of children, individually or collectively, are." This makes it acceptable to him to impose those beliefs upon children and protect children from parental beliefs.

Dwyer believes that many parents will keep their children in religious schools no matter what, so it is up to the state to look out for children's interests by using vouchers as a mechanism to force "improvement" in the secular education provided within such schools. Dwyer goes so far as to say that states should be compelled to offer vouchers to fund a "good secular education" within private schools.

His argument rests upon his curious assumption that the majority of private schools presently offer a substandard academic education. However, a recent study from the National Center for Education Statistics shows private school students consistently and significantly outscoring their government school counterparts at fourth, eighth and twelfth grade levels. Additionally, a higher percentage of private school students go on to college.

Dwyer uses supposed academic deficiencies as an excuse to advance government control over private schools. Voucher-receiving schools would be required to compartmentalize religious education apart from other courses, allow children to opt-out of any religious activities or instruction, use tests that would force schools to teach state-approved content, and agree not to teach religious beliefs that the state deems harmful.

Since Dwyer is also concerned about "psychological harms children might incur in some schools," he suggests voucher-receiving schools might also be required to sign a pledge to avoid practices the state might deem harmful such as "confining students to individual workstations…, instilling intolerant and dogmatic attitudes, and threatening children's self-esteem and psychological well-being with constant reminders of their sinfulness and admonitions about the tragic consequences of not conforming to religious precepts." His argument rests on the assumption that education experts have the wisdom to determine what is good for all children, including not just academics, but also their psychological, social and spiritual development.

Dwyer seems to view the state as the ultimate "grantor of rights"—the national "parent." He comments: "…the state also bears responsibility for their [children] being in a religious school, because it is the state that gives parents the power to put them there." Following Dwyer's logic, if the state grants parents the option of enrolling their children in a private school, there should be no question about the State's right to control what goes on in private schools, whether or not it funds them.

While many of us might disagree with Dwyer's presuppositions, arguments, and conclusions, this book is important since it will likely provide the basis of a growing movement by the left to co-opt the voucher movement. Those who, like Dwyer, yearn for greater government control of private schooling will unwittingly be aided by conservative voucher advocates who will take vouchers at any price. But for people who oppose vouchers for fear of converting private schools into government-school look-alikes, this book is a fine exposé of how some on the Left see the "reform": as the Trojan Horse that will give them power to control all schools.

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