President Donald Trump’s federal budget blueprint calls for over $1 billion in new investments in school choice, including vouchers for private schools. Under a voucher system, parents receive government funds to spend at schools of their choice.
While much of the discussion surrounding school choice centers on its effects on academic performance, there are also moral and legal dimensions to the debate. Because vouchers may be used for religious schools, critics object that they will effectively function as government subsidies for religious practice and instruction. The National Education Association, for instance, alleges that “vouchers tend to be a means of circumventing the Constitutional prohibitions against subsidizing religious practice and instruction.” Just as the state shouldn’t use taxpayer money to fund a church’s Sunday school program, it shouldn’t use taxpayer money to fund an elementary school that promotes that same church’s religious principles.
This objection to private school vouchers is misguided. The use of tax-funded vouchers for private religious schools does not amount to a government subsidy of religion. A government grants a subsidy when it directly funds an institution, not when it distributes entitlements to citizens who, in turn, choose to buy from that institution. Think of economic subsidies. When government officials decide to allocate money to a sugar producer, that’s a subsidy. When Jill spends some of her government-funded unemployment benefits on a bag of sugar, that’s not a subsidy. That’s Jill making a private decision about how to spend her entitlement.
A genuine — and genuinely objectionable — government subsidy of religion would put the state in the business of directly funding religious institutions in the way that it directly funds sugar producers. Were the government to take it upon itself to judge that certain religious institutions deserved taxpayer support, it would surely violate the Establishment Clause, which forbids the government from “respecting any establishment of religion.” But that’s not how a voucher system works. When Omar spends his voucher on a religious school, he is making a private decision about how to spend his entitlement. This view was affirmed in 2002 by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who explained that school voucher programs do not violate the Establishment Clause because they “provide assistance directly to a broad class of citizens, who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice.”
Indeed, Americans use tax-funded entitlements for religious purposes all the time. Consider three cases:
A Jewish family uses food stamps at a grocery store to buy apples and honey for their Rosh Hashanah celebration.
A Muslim woman donates a portion of her Social Security check to help build a mosque in her hometown.
A Mormon teenager uses a Pell Grant to fund his education at Brigham Young University, a private university owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
No one considers food stamps, Social Security, and Pell Grants to be government subsidies for religion. They don’t involve the state itself expressing a preference for certain religions. Rather, they are programs that distribute resources to citizens to enable them to pursue their own ways of life, ways of life that often includes religious practice. School vouchers are no different.