Feb 14, 2013

Watch for a major fight in Congress over taxpayer subsidies for religious and other private schools.

In his Republican response to the State of the Union this week, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) touted “school choice,” a euphemism for vouchers.

“We need to give all parents, especially the parents of children with special needs, the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice,” Rubio said.

The next day, the Florida senator rolled out his “Educational Opportunities Act,” a neo-voucher bill that lets corporations and individuals donate money to “scholarship granting organizations” that pay for tuition at private schools. The donors get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit – for corporations up to $100,000 and for individuals up to $4,500 – and private schools, most of them religious, get a windfall of new money.

Call it a Rubio Goldberg Machine that takes tax dollars, spins them around and puts them into the collection plates of various religious schools that are then free to use the cash to indoctrinate and discriminate.

It’s more than a little ironic that Rubio, who spent a lot of time in his speech talking about the federal debt problem, told The Miami Herald that he doesn’t know how much his scheme will cost.

The newspaper said Rubio’s private school slush fund reflects his close ties with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush has relentlessly pushed private school subsidies in the Sunshine State for years, and the Herald said some of his former associates helped Rubio concoct his plan.

The senator’s neo-voucher campaign is likely to have a companion effort in the U.S. House of Representatives. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has announced plans to put forward a “school choice” scheme, and it’s certain to have the enthusiastic backing of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Boehner is positively obsessed with taxpayer subsidies for religious and other private schools. He used all his political clout – and backroom political wheeling and dealing – to keep in place a federally funded voucher program in the District of Columbia that underwrites tuition at Roman Catholic, fundamentalist Protestant and Muslim schools.

The House speaker rarely misses a chance to tout his support private schools, especially the Roman Catholic schools that seem especially dear to him.

At President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Tuesday in Congress, Boehner chose Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a Catholic school principal and two students who use vouchers to attend Catholic school to sit in the balcony as his special guests for the occasion.

All this adds up to one thing, influential Republicans in Congress plan to push hard for some kind of federal taxpayer subsidy for religious and other private schools. Those of us who support church-state separation and a strong, effective public school system must be on the alert.