In addition to the loss of taxpayer revenue caused by the state voucher overpayment, the fact that most of this overpayment goes to religious schools raises special concerns. The additional state voucher revenue can be used by private schools to replace money from traditional funding sources. For religious schools affiliated with and funded by a church or other religious institution, the extra money allows the church the option of reducing its subsidy to the school. Private and religious schools have complete budgetary discretion—they can reduce their tuition for non-voucher students, build a chapel, buy bibles or other religious books, or generally use the revenue as they see fit. These are all legitimate private expenditures. But when taxpayers fund the building of a chapel or pay for the proselytizing activities of a religious institution, the result is compelled taxpayer support of religion, contrary to fundamental American principles of religious liberty.
The mission statements of many of the voucher schools reveal that their purpose is predominantly religious. For example, St. Peter-Immanuel’s mission statement reads, “St. Peter-Immanuel Lutheran School is an integral part of the total ministry of our church. The purpose of the school is to make disciples of Jesus.” The Parklawn Christian School writes, “It is the mission of Parklawn Christian School to serve the Lord Jesus Christ by passing on the Biblical truths and saving knowledge of Jesus Christ to the next generation.” Yeshiva Elementary aims to “shape young lives in the observance of Torah Mitzvos and Midos as modeled by personalities that were and are Torah champions.” At Holy Redeemer Christian Academy, “all learning will be rooted in the understanding of faith in God and the power of His word, educating children in the core curriculum as well as the spiritual development of children.” Clara Muhammad School uses “the Qur’an and the lifestyle of Muhammad, the Prophet as our foundation.” To the extent that the voucher program provides more money than the tuition needed to purchase admission at these schools, the voucher payments are providing direct government subsidies to such pervasively sectarian institutions and their missions. Indeed, some voucher school administrators have stated that they became involved with the voucher program to fulfill the mission of the church to reach out to those who do not have a church.
Although the Wisconsin voucher statute promises students the right to “opt out” of prayer services and similar religious activities, there are two problems with this provision. First, in many religious schools, religion is integral to virtually all school activities. For example, one mission statement explains that “Nazareth Lutheran School’s curriculum is full-time Christian education. All subjects, indeed all realationships [sic] and the ways we live our 1100 hours togehter [sic] each year, are based on God’s love for us…. Walk into one of our classrooms and you are just as likely to hear a discussion of God’s love in the science class as in the religion class—or on the playground, during lunch, as part of the discipline process, or whatever happens to be going on.”
In addition, recent investigation of the voucher program reveals that the “opt out” provision is more theoretical than real. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, an independent agency that investigates compliance with civil rights laws, conducted an investigation of voucher admission practices in 1999 on behalf of PFAWF and the Milwaukee Branch of the NAACP. It found that a number of religious voucher schools actively discourage or do not permit such opt-outs. For example, one school told an MMFHC investigator that “If you don’t want your children to take part in the religion, our school’s not for you. It’s a Christian education. That’s what we’re about.” Another school representative, in answer to an MMFHC representative who stated that her child is not Catholic, was told this was fine but that the child would have to participate in all religious activities and services.
According to the Public Policy Forum, a non-partisan policy organization in Milwaukee, there is evidence that at least a few voucher schools, including religious schools, are using the state voucher overpayment to reduce tuition for students not in the voucher program. This raises further disturbing questions. To the extent that the state voucher overpayment is reducing tuition for non-voucher students, public money is subsidizing students not even nominally eligible for assistance under the voucher law or protected by its provisions. This means that religious schools, for example, can use tax dollars to reach more students who, as tuition-paying students not protected by the voucher law, cannot choose to opt out of religious activities. They can also subsidize the tuition of wealthy students who clearly could not be eligible for the voucher program. In short, the tuition overpayment provides millions of dollars to voucher schools that they can use in ways and for purposes that are directly contrary to the state voucher law.