The Breakfast Table

School Vouchers

Dear Cathy,

Thanks for yesterday afternoon’s helpful comments about school choice. I like your point about holding private schools to nondiscrimination standards akin to those now applied to universities as a condition of recieving public funds. I think it successfully addresses the concerns of those who worry about funding white-supremacist schools, etc. The separation of church and state issue is, however, more troubling. Clearly this is a principle of such fundamental importance for liberal democracy that we should not compromise it. But would it compromise this principle if a diverse range of religiously affiliated schools were funded equally? As I understand them, the founders were concerned about the state throwing its weight behind one religion in preference to another, not about state support of religion per se. I am inclined in general to agree with Tocqueville that liberal democracies need religion as a moral-spiritual-communitarian counterweight to the necessarily secular, commercial, and individualistic orientation of their political culture. This seems even more true today than it was when he wrote his great book in the late 1820s and 30s. But even if it is possible to satisfactorily address the important church-state concern, I remain troubled by what happens to those who end up, for whatever reasons, in public schools. Why do we assume that under a voucher system they will be any more competitive than they are now? Does not their very nature as public schools render them immune to some extent from the pressure to compete? Won’t we end up with an even more grossly imbalanced two-tier system? Again, I’m sympathetic in theory, but I still have questions.

I do find the Chinese spying successes very troubling. But I guess I don’t hold President Clinton personally responsible. And Monicagate aside, if we really took our politicians to task every time they dodged or evaded tough questions, there wouldn’t be any left standing–including greats from both sides such as FDR and Reagan. Hope that doesn’t seem too cynical.

As for sports, I’m feeling better about the Yankees this morning after last night’s win. I have not really had time yet to follow women’s basketball very closely, but I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be as successful as, say, women’s tennis. It might not ever get all the hype the men get, but that may be just as well. And there is inspiration from the sporting world this morning in Boston as the papers are full of the Celtics’ re-retirement of Bill Russell–one of the really great and important black athletes, whose talent and intelligence and manifest decency and dignity helped change race relations in this country for the better.

Hope you’re well. Looking forward to hearing from you.