Column: Vouchers should be part of Legislature’s school finance debate

Michael Schuttloffel is the executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference.
Michael Schuttloffel is the executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference.

by Michael Schuttloffel

When the Kansas Legislature convenes in January 2012, one issue that will likely not receive serious consideration is the matter of school choice.

This, despite the fact that legislators are expected to debate Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal for a new school finance formula — seemingly an opportune time for a conversation about the vital role Catholic schools play in educating Kansas children.

Pope Benedict XVI has spoken of “the protection of the right of parents to educate their children” as being “not negotiable.” Yet in this country, too many parents are not empowered to choose their children’s education. The location of one’s house, and frequently the value of that property, all too often determines what kind of education one’s child will receive.

Parents who opt for a Catholic education must resign themselves to paying tuition twice: once in taxes dedicated to public education and once in tuition for the Catholic school. This reality makes a Catholic education unattainable for many who would otherwise gladly take advantage of it.

School choice legislation — perhaps better described as parental rights legislation — can take many forms. A voucher system would allow the tax dollars a family pays for education to follow the child to the school of its choice. Milton Friedman, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and who was promoting vouchers in the 1950s, believed that government financing of education and government operation of schools were two different matters, and that the former did not necessarily imply the latter.

Nonetheless, there are those who fear that government funding of private schools will inevitably come with too many strings attached. They tend to support what are called tax-credit scholarship programs, where individuals and corporations receive a tax credit for making donations to scholarship organizations, which in turn use the donated funds to provide scholarships to private schools.

To legislators concerned with the perilous state of the Kansas budget but unconcerned with the challenges facing Catholic schools, the following thought experiment is proposed: Suppose every Catholic school in Kansas was closed and those roughly 29,000 students were suddenly dumped into the public school system. Where would you find the money to pay for the public education they are entitled to? Surely the taxes their parents have been paying all these years for their education is sitting there waiting for them, right?

In an age when it seems almost routine for the government to force taxpayers to pay for other people’s abortions, contraceptives, and sterilizations, the merest suggestion that public funds be used to help a disadvantaged child attend a private school is considered beyond the pale — dangerous, suicidal for politicians, and even unconstitutional. The framers of our Constitution, rolling over in their graves, must wonder what madness has infected our times.

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