President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education bodes well for the future of educational choice.
However, DeVos’s nomination has come under assault because she supports vouchers that enable parents to, among other options, send their children to religious schools.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State contends that vouchers “threaten religious liberty.” The president of the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union avers that DeVos’s voucher idea “perverts the bedrock American value of separation of church and state.”Both arguments are wrong.
Vouchers create options for everyone.
It is true that many private schools originated as parochial schools and that faith remains important for a good number of them. Public schools, by contrast, are constitutionally required to be non-religious.
In virtually all school districts the system is rigged in favor of non-religious public schools. Everyone is taxed to support these institutions. If parents desire to send their children to private schools of any kind, or to educate them at home, they bear the costs. Wealthy and educated Americans can take advantage of these alternatives, but it is difficult for low-income Americans to do so.
The most obvious benefit of a voucher system is that it introduces competition into the marketplace of education. A robust voucher program would enable all parents to send their children to private schools. An influx of parents able to pay reasonable tuitions would almost certainly lead to the creation of new private schools — both religious and secular.
This competition would benefit all schools, public and private alike.
Vouchers increase religious liberty.
An added benefit is less obvious. Some parents, including your present writer, believe that they have a religious obligation to provide a faith-based education for their children. These individuals are taxed to support non-religious schools, and then they must bear additional costs to provide a religious education for their children.
A thoughtful voucher system would enable all Americans to act on their religious convictions regarding the education of their children without requiring anyone to send their children to schools to which they object. By any measure, such a program increases rather than threatens religious liberty.
If, as groups like the ACLU and AU contend, the Constitution required the separation of church and state, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that vouchers supporting religious schools are unconstitutional. Poor parents who believe they have an obligation to provide a religious education would simply be out of luck. But we should not pretend that such an outcome would increase liberty.
Fortunately, the Constitution contains no such principle. I’ll address this argument in detail in my next post, but for now I’ll simply note that the Supreme Court has concluded that vouchers do not violate the Establishment Clause in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District (1993).
Robust voucher systems would improve education for America’s children, and they would enable all parents to act upon their religious convictions regarding education. All friends of liberty should support DeVos’s nomination and hope that as Secretary of Education she is able to encourage states to adopt substantive voucher programs.
 Excellent arguments can be made that the Department of Education should be abolished, but barring its demise liberty friendly citizens should rejoice that it will be run by a longtime advocate of school choice