October 24, 2000

The Politics of Vouchers

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Leading law scholar and authority on the First Amendment Vincent Blasi, delivered the annual Frank Irvine lecture, titled “School Vouchers and Religious Liberty,” to an audience of forty law students, professors, staff and local community members yesterday.

Blasi serves as Corliss Lamont Professor of Civil Liberties at Columbia Law School and the David Lurton Massee Jr. Professor of Law at the University of Virginia Law School.

Among his many works, Blasi wrote Law and Liberalism in the 1980’s and co-authored The Burger Court: The Counter Revolution That Wasn’t. He has also published several articles on the First Amendment, including his most recent “Free Speech and Good Character” published in 1999 in the University of California – Los Angeles law review.

Blasi approached the heavily debated issue of school vouchers from an historical context, comparing the current controversy to James Madison’s 18th century advocacy for a separation of church and state. Blasi’s lecture offered few solutions to the current controversy, instead highlighting the numerous political and religious consequences of a federally sponsored school voucher program.

“The school voucher issue is both complicated and daunting,” Blasi said. “Parents, not government officials, decide which schools receive funding.”

During the hour long lecture, Blasi stated that a school voucher system does not violate the Madisonian principle of a separation of church and state.

“The state has not adopted an educational strategy that gives it a stake in the religious beliefs of its citizens,” Blasi said.

According to Blasi, however, school vouchers could have specific negative outcomes. He explained that vouchers create dangerous conditions for religious factions, causing them to forfeit political independence and adopt a more entrepreneurial approach to compete for students and federal funds.

“Instead of looking for good teachers, schools become more of a business, rather than a place to learn,” Blasi said.

“Educational enclaves are not good for the educational process, but I fear as a society we have already traveled down this path,” Blasi concluded. Enclaves refer to separate and private schools, usually with particular social, cultural or religious affiliations.

In response to an audience question about the discriminatory practices of certain fundamentalist private schools, Blasi said that the orthodoxy advocated in these private schools could “weaken the ability of public schools to teach citizens to uphold socially acceptable values.”

The Irvine lecture series was established in 1913 in honor of Judge Frank Irvine, a former dean of the law school. The lecture series focuses on different legal topics each year.

Archived article by Ben Hubbard