Category Archives: Education / Youth

Taxes and Religion

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Another Assault Begins…

The Hill reports that Trump has rolled back the Obama Administration’s education measures intended to ensure adequate teacher preparation and assess school performance.

The teacher preparation regulations included training requirements for educators, and the school accountability rules were meant to gauge schools’ effectiveness.

The rules drew sharp criticism from Republicans, who argued states should have more control over the classroom. This falls in line with the philosophy of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Republicans lawmakers earlier this month voted to strike down the two rules through the Congressional Review Act, which gives them the power to roll back certain regulations. In the Senate, the special procedure prevents the use of the filibuster.

Trump signed the bills Monday, not only eliminating the Obama-era education rules, but also prohibiting future presidents from issuing similar rules.

Repealing these rules will “encourage freedom in our schools,” Trump said.

Yes indeed. States like Indiana should be free to bleed resources from public schools without having to comply with pesky rules from Washington requiring that they actually evaluate the performance of the (primarily religious) schools that are receiving those resources.

Parents should be free to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools without some bureaucrat requiring confirmation that the people teaching in those schools actually know anything about subject-matter or pedagogy.

Evidently, the respect for “freedom” shown by Trump and DeVos doesn’t extend to the freedom of taxpayers to demand accountability for enterprises being supported by our tax dollars.

In fact, a discussion about what elements of our social and physical infrastructure should properly be provided by citizens’ tax dollars is long overdue.

We have bridges failing and roads that look like those of third-world countries. We barely–and grudgingly– support public transit. Our tattered and insufficient social safety net is under unremitting assault by politicians who demean Americans who rely on any aspect of it, while ignoring their own dependence on the public purse. (Yes, Paul Ryan, I’m looking at you–but you have a lot of company.)

The public school system is a key element of our social infrastructure. At its best, it provides skills enabling children to escape poverty, a “street corner” through which diverse citizens come to know and understand each other, and an introduction to civic competency.

Do all public schools meet that standard? No. But we have an obligation to fix those that don’t–just as we have an obligation to fix our decaying bridges. Instead, the Republican response is to privatize education and let private interests build–and toll–our roads and bridges. That approach is a rejection of the very definition of an infrastructure–utilities that serve all citizens.

Trump and the GOP don’t want to fix either our schools or our bridges; their definition of “freedom” is enriching private interests at the expense of the public good.

 

Will Incompetence Save Us?

This Dana Milbank column on Betsy DeVos is nothing short of wonderful. For one thing, it is really funny, and laughs are hard to come by these days. Beyond the humor, however,  Milbank also offers a ray of hope in the wake of yesterday’s (bare) confirmation of DeVos as Secretary of Education. He begins:

Rarely is the question asked: Is our Cabinet secretaries learning?

And if we is being honest with ourself, we says: No, they is not.

Today’s lesson: the education of Betsy DeVos.

Anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock (and I’m not judging–hiding under a rock is perfectly understandable in the Age of Trump) knows at least four things about Betsy DeVos: 1) she is monumentally unqualified for her post; 2) she gave gazillions of dollars to a large number of the Republican Senators who voted to confirm her (Conflict of interest? What conflict of interest?); 3) she is a proponent of siphoning taxpayer dollars from public schools to support Christian schools via vouchers; and public opposition to her confirmation was more intense and widespread than most observers can ever recall seeing.

It took DeVos’ longtime collaborator and fellow culture-warrior Mike Pence to break a 50/50 tie and get her over the finish line.

Milbank has words of consolation for those of us who view DeVos as an unmitigated disaster.

Democrats in the long run may thank the majority Republicans for confirming DeVos. In the fight against President Trump’s agenda, the new administration’s incompetence is their friend. Trump’s choice of DeVos signals a dangerous desire to dismantle public schools. It would be more dangerous if he chose somebody who was up to the task.

As bad as DeVos is, Milbank points out that she is only marginally the worst of a crew that includes Ben Carson (at Housing and Urban Development because–hey!–he lives in a house), Rick Perry (who admitted he had no idea what the Department of Energy did) and others.

Heading the National Security Council is Mike Flynn, reportedly drummed out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for poor management. Nikki Haley, the U.N. ambassador, has no foreign policy experience; Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin has no government experience and displayed his financial skills during his confirmation hearing by failing to disclose $100 million in personal assets.

One can already see future Cabinet meetings shaping up in the White House, as Trump goes around the table asking for updates:

Carson: “Pass.”

DeVos: “Could you come back to me, please?”

Flynn: “Sorry, what?”

Perry: “Oops.”

No doubt there is some value in nominating people outside the “establishment.” But the value is diminished if your outsiders can’t do the job.

Milbank noted that after Senate Democrats spent hours addressing DeVos’ manifest ignorance of even the most basic issues facing the Department of Education, John Cornyn’s response failed to rebut any of those charges. Instead he simply said that “The president will get the Cabinet he nominated and deserves.”

As Milbank concluded: Yes, he will.

 

The Social Safety Net and the Ideologues

I know I tend to harp on the difference between thoughtful policymaking and ideology. Good policymaking depends significantly upon expertise and research, learning from experience (otherwise known as trial and error) and careful empirical observation; ideology dismisses poor results and unfortunate side-effects as irrelevancies or attributes them to insufficiently thorough implementation.

Congressional Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, and with the likely concurrence of the Senate GOP and Mitch McConnell, are determined to make drastic changes to American social policy. To the extent they are not prompted by corruption (that is, acting on behalf of and at the behest of their donor base), their desired changes to Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare are entirely ideological. They don’t want to improve these programs; they want to dismantle them.

It has long been an article of Rightwing faith that welfare programs—indeed, social insurance of any sort—creates unhealthy dependency. (Somehow, that belief does not extend to corporate welfare. But that is a post for another time.)

The evidence, not unsurprisingly, suggests otherwise.

There is substantial research suggesting that countries with more robust social safety networks experience fewer socially undesirable behaviors: less crime, less divorce, less child abuse…the list goes on. Rates of murder, robbery, burglary, rape, and other serious crimes are generally much higher in the U.S. than in industrialized nations offering universal health care and other social supports. Homicide rates in the U.S. have consistently ranged between three and twenty times those of other industrialized countries.

It is particularly notable that Canada’s murder rate is far below that of the U.S. (running around a fourth of our levels). For homicides committed by youth, the U.S. rate has been as much as ten times the Canadian levels. Yet Canadians watch American television, log onto American websites, read American publications, share our culture. There is also widespread gun ownership in Canada.

What most differentiates us is the fact that Canadians have guaranteed health care and less social insecurity.

The U.S. is more economically stratified than any other advanced country. Its levels of income inequality and relative poverty are triple those of other wealthy nations. Scholars tell us that developed countries having relatively low levels of income inequality have low crime rates; in countries where one segment of the population has great wealth while another segment is in extreme poverty, crime rates are high.

As a 2015 article in The Week noted, the differences in approach to social welfare are ideologically based.

Conservatives often want to tie safety net programs to having a job, so that people aren’t tempted by handouts to hold off working. There are work requirements for food stamps. More heavy requirements were added to traditional welfare in the late 1990s. And now Republicans are suggesting requirements for Medicaid as well. This makes little sense. The much more generous European systems have higher labor force participation, and the U.S. economy has done progressively worse over the last three decades at actually creating enough jobs for everyone to have.

Add it all up, and it’s not surprising that most other advanced Western countries have much lower poverty rates than America.

Recent research has tied declining rates of marriage to poverty, and has confirmed that “failing schools” are typically those trying to educate children from impoverished homes—that growing up in poverty creates identifiable physical and emotional impediments to learning.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that a strong social safety net reduces crime and other social dysfunctions that cost Americans significant tax dollars—and that the availability of such social supports does not discourage workforce participation.

Evidence, however, is no match for rigid ideology. Americans should expect a full-court effort to gut Social Security and Medicare by zealots impervious to evidence.

The Coming Assault on Education

I have noted previously that Trump’s choice for Education Secretary is Betsy DeVos, a dedicated proponent of school privatization. The depth of her commitment to vouchers is matched only by the shallowness of her educational experience and training (she’s never taught nor does she have a degree in education).

Politico looked into DeVos’ history and statements, and began a recent article as follows:

The billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to “advance God’s Kingdom.”

Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools.

In an audio recording obtained by POLITICO, DeVos and her husband (an Amway billionaire) explained that their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education. They believe that school choice leads to “greater Kingdom gain”  and that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities. They’re convinced that school choice can reverse that trend.

Hoosier readers who see the fundamentalist hand of Mike Pence in the choice of DeVos can find confirmation of those suspicions in a Mother Jones article about Pence’s voucher program.

Pence’s voucher program ballooned into a $135 million annual bonanza almost exclusively benefiting private religious schools—ranging from those teaching the Koran to Christian schools teaching creationism and the Bible as literal truth—at the expense of regular and usually better-performing public schools. Indeed, one of the schools was a madrasa, an Islamic religious school, briefly attended by a young man arrested this summer for trying to join ISIS—just the kind of place Trump’s coalition would find abhorrent.

In Indiana, Pence created one of the largest publicly funded voucher programs in the country. Initially launched in 2011 under Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, it was sold as a way to give poor, minority children trapped in bad public schools a way out.

Daniels program was relatively small, and focused on low-income families. Pence dramatically increased and redirected it.

By the 2015-16 school year, the number of students using state-funded vouchers had shot up to more than 32,000 in 316 private schools. But Pence’s school choice experiment demonstrates that vouchers can create a host of thorny political problems and potential church-and-state issues. Almost every single one of these voucher schools is religious. The state Department of Education can’t tell parents which or even whether any of the voucher schools are secular. (A state spokeswoman told me Indiana doesn’t collect data on the school’s religious affiliation.) Out of the list of more than 300 schools, I could find only four that weren’t overtly religious and, of those, one was solely for students with Asperger’s syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders, and the other is an alternative school for at-risk students….

Indiana’s choice law prohibits the state from regulating the curriculum of schools getting vouchers, so millions of dollars of the state education budget are subsidizing schools whose curricula teaches creationism and the stories and parables in the Bible as literal truth. Among the more popular textbooks are some from Bob Jones University that are known for teaching that humans and dinosaurs existed on the Earth at the same time and that dragons were real. BJU textbooks have also promoted a positive view of the KKK, writing in one book, “the Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross to target bootleggers, wife beaters and immoral movies.”

Not surprisingly, Indiana children in these voucher schools perform poorly on standardized tests.

The voucher schools can’t necessarily blame low test scores on poverty, either. According to data from the state, today more than 60 percent of the voucher students in Indiana are white, and more than half of them have never even attended any public school, much less a failing one. Some of the fastest growth in voucher use has occurred in some of the state’s most affluent suburbs. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a Chicago-based think tank, recently concluded that because white children’s participation in the voucher program dwarfed the next largest racial group by 44 points, the vouchers were effectively helping to resegregate public schools.

So Indiana taxpayers are subsidizing religious indoctrination with monies that should be supporting the state’s under-resourced public schools. And that’s the model that Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos want to replicate nationwide.