Last week, the Indianapolis Star did something called “journalism.” (These episodes have become sufficiently rare that we should applaud loudly when they occur. I’m clapping.)
Snark aside, the Star followed the money, in this case, our tax dollars, which are flowing ever more generously to Indiana’s parochial schools. And as the introductory paragraphs made clear, these are schools that take both their religious identity and religious instruction seriously.
At Colonial Christian, an Indianapolis school on the northeast side that receives public funds through Indiana’s private school voucher program, students are warned they can be kicked out of school for “promoting a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”
At even more voucher-accepting schools, families are required to sign statements of faith as a condition of enrollment, affirming that they hold the same religious beliefs and values as the school.
Theology classes are required for four years at Bishop Chatard High School, as are hours performing service and outreach. And some schools, including Bethesda Christian in Brownsburg, require a recommendation by a pastor.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having religiously-based private education available to parents who want their children educated in such environments. Whether that education should be paid for with tax dollars, however, is a different question.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled several years ago that voucher programs could pass constitutional muster, despite the Establishment Clause, because the voucher (theoretically) was issued to the parents, and those parents could (again, theoretically) choose either a secular or religious school.
When Indiana’s Supreme Court was faced with specific language in the state constitution that seemed to foreclose the federal evasion, Indiana’s Court nevertheless opted to follow the same “logic.” (So much for “originalism” and “textual” analysis, which–had either of those purported judicial approaches actually been applied–would have required a different outcome.)
The Star’s article on religious schools’ participation in the state’s voucher program was the fourth in a series on Indiana’s voucher program, a program that was “grown” by former Governor Pence to be the largest in the country. Pence–like Betsy DeVos– was clear about his intent to privilege religious education, and neither of them seems troubled by the constant stream of research showing that children using vouchers do more poorly in English and math than children from similar backgrounds who attend public schools.
In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of vouchers, the majority indulged in an abstract–and intellectually dishonest– exercise: the pretense that the voucher went to the parents (it is my understanding that, while the parents choose the ultimate recipient, they never touch the money), and –far more consequently–that the parents are free to choose from among religious or secular private schools. The “facts on the ground” are otherwise; almost all of the nonpublic schools accepting vouchers are religious, and those that are not tend to be geared to special populations: children with disabilities or behavioral issues or the like.
Let’s be honest, at least. Vouchers are support for religious education, and the quotations from parents in the Star article underscore the reality that most parents opting for vouchers do so because they want to send their children to a religious school.
So–back to my original question: why should taxpayers who believe in science and the importance of science education pay for children to attend schools that teach creationism (one of the administrators interviewed insisted that opposition to the “theory” of evolution was essential to his school’s approach)? Why should taxes paid by LGBTQ citizens and their allies be used to send children to schools that proselytize against “homosexual lifestyles”? Why should tax dollars be diverted from a public school system that serves all children and sent to schools that are unaccountable to those taxpayers and that research tells us are not providing an equivalent education?
I remain convinced that the Court in Zelman got it wrong–on both the law and the facts. But even if vouchers are constitutionally acceptable, they fail any reasonable test for what constitutes good public policy. If Americans want to promote alternative educational approaches and parental choice, there are ways to do that within the public system; charter schools, for example, are still public schools, with (among other things) an obligation to teach science and abide by the Bill of Rights.
The Star has illustrated what many educators already know: Indiana’s voucher program is an effort to circumvent the Establishment Clause’s prohibition on government funding for religion.
Educational outcomes are incidental.