By Pat Williams
People don't want government snooping around churches; nor are we comfortable with government auditing church-run schools. Such meddling involves what our nation's founders were trying to avoid entanglement of the state into affairs of the church. On a different but now related issue, America's taxpayers are also sensitive, as we ought to be, about massive new government spending. Both of those issues are now front and center because of the recent split decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of spending taxpayers' money for church supported schools. For the first time, the doors have been opened to both government oversight into the affairs of our church operated schools and significant demands for new funding. By a vote of five to four this court, arguably the most notorious in American history, legalized the use of government vouchers to pay for education at private schools, including those operated by churches.
This means, of course, that your tax dollars may now be used by parents to send their children to other than a public school schools operated by churches. The dilemma is in the public accountability of those schools. Should they follow the same education laws that govern our public schools? They don't now. Should church schools meet the basic school accreditation standards of other schools that receive public money? Should our civil rights laws finally apply to church schools? Should they accept the standardized testing that President Bush is requiring for the public schools?
Or should private schools, including religious operated schools, use the public's tax dollars with absolutely no accountability requirements? If so, then what about your tax dollars going to a school run by fundamentalist religious Muslim fanatics with links to the Taliban; or should our government place itself in the position of determining what is and is not a legitimate religion? The television preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson both pronounced the Sept. 11 tragedies as nothing more than God's wrath against America. Do you want your tax money going to any schools operated by those two right-wing religious zealots?
The Supreme Court has not only pushed us into the briar patch of church-state entanglement, it has also thrown open the doors to a new way to spend vast amounts of our money.
During the late 1980s and early '90s I was chairman of the congressional Committee on Postsecondary Education with jurisdiction over the federal Guaranteed Student Loan Program a kind of voucher system of loans for higher education at public and private schools alike. I witnessed, first hand, one of the most expensive private school scams ever perpetrated against the American taxpayer.
Most people remember those scandals: fly-by-night, flimflam artists set up private schools, ostensibly for the purpose of providing education to students in the various trades: truck drivers, hairdressers, welders and many other vocations.
Under the Guaranteed Student Loan Program the schools received the "vouchers" from the students, cashed them in (pocketing the money-your tax dollars), and far too often the students received little or no education but were stuck with repaying the federal loan. Understandably, the loan default rate went through the roof with one in every five students defaulting on their loans. The private schools, not the students, were to blame and the taxpayers were left footing the bill. Although the problem was worse in the large cities, all taxpayers including us in the Rocky Mountain West were paying the high cost of these private school frauds.
Under my chairmanship in the House and Ted Kennedy's in the Senate, we set out in a completely bipartisan effort to clean up the expensive mess made by the private school sector. We passed new laws to dramatically increase accountability and we assured enforcement. Yes, we regulated what had been a "deregulated" out-of-control system of for-profit private schools. Within only a few years 500 offending private schools were removed from "voucher" eligibility. The rate of student loan defaults dropped from a high of 22 percent in the early 1990s to only six percent today. The Department of Education has estimated that our overhaul of the private sector schools has saved the taxpayers an astonishing $18 billion dollars during the past 10 years!
The recent Supreme Court decision on vouchers may not only have handed a snoop warrant for government to meddle in the affairs of religiously operated schools, but may also have opened the flood gates for the hemorrhaging of tax money to corporate flimflam artists running private schools some of them church related.
Pat Williams is a former U.S. Congressman and is a senior fellow and regional policy associate at the Carroll and Nancy Fields O'Conner Center for the Rocky Mountain West.