Category Archives: Education / Youth

Vouchers And Religious Discrimination

Can you stand one more rant about the un-American motives and consequences of school voucher programs?

I’ve been following a case that was filed last year in North Carolina. So far as I have been able to tell, it is still working its way through that state’s courts. The Raleigh News and Observer reported on the filing last July, noting that seven North Carolina parents had partially based their claim that program was unconstitutional on the fact that it provides funding to schools that engage in religious discrimination. 

The program has been controversial since it was launched in 2014. Supporters say it gives parents more choice in educating their children. Opponents say it siphons millions of tax dollars away from public schools each year and requires little accountability from private schools that receive the funds. 

The Complaint identified the parents as state taxpayers who have school-age children who can’t use the vouchers at certain private schools due to their religious beliefs, their identities or their sexual orientations, and the suit alleges that public funds are supporting schools “that divide communities on religious lines, disparage many North Carolinians’ faiths and identities, and coerce families into living under religious dictates.”

Another story, from the Citizen Times, documented the accuracy of those assertions.

In 2017, Elizabeth Meininger, a police officer in Fayetteville, went to enroll her two young children at Berean Baptist Academy, a local private school.

Elizabeth and her wife, Kate, liked Berean’s curriculum and felt its small class sizes could challenge their daughter and son, who seemed to be overlooked in their large county school system.

The Meiningers’ combined income qualified them for North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarships, a $4,200 public voucher they could put toward covering private school tuition. With the voucher, Berean was affordable — less than half the price of a non-religious private option like Fayetteville Academy.

Yet soon after Elizabeth and Kate started Berean’s application process, the school informed them it wouldn’t accept their children. According to Elizabeth, school officials said Berean only accepted Christian families and the Meiningers couldn’t be Christian if they were gay.

Elizabeth and Kate subsequently discovered that, every year, Berean took in hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars through the North Carolina voucher program. The paper further reported that of the eight schools that had received the most Opportunity Scholarship money last year, six had explicit policies against students or parents who are homosexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming.

It gets worse: Many of the schools taking taxpayer money use a “science” curriculum that teaches the earth was created six thousand years ago, in six days, by God. In science class.

In the 2019-2020 school year, North Carolina doled out $48 million in scholarships–money that would otherwise have been available for the state’s public school systems. The schools benefitting most from this largesse clearly feel no compunction to hide their discriminatory policies. According to the article, Berean took in $855,877 in vouchers in 2019, the second highest amount in the state, and as part of its published school policy, “factors in” students and families’ sexual orientation and gender identity.

Another religious school, Liberty Christian Academy, received $651,641 in 2019-20, the third-most in the state. The school lists “participating in, supporting, or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual activist, bisexual activity” as reason for denying or removing students. Yet another–Northwood Temple Academy– took in $500,000. Its website cites biblical passages supporting its anti-gay policies.

The tax dollars being sent to these discriminatory schools–dollars being used to indoctrinate American children into very unAmerican attitudes–come from all North Carolina’s citizens–including those who are Muslim, Jewish, and gay and transgender, despite the fact that few if any voucher schools will accept their children.

it’s hard to disagree with Craig White, a bisexual man who works at the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, who is quoted as saying  “I should have the right to see my tax dollars not go to an institution that labels me as an abomination.” 

The challenge is based on North Carolina’s state constitution. But even if this program doesn’t run afoul of that charter, it is terrible public policy.

Before we had reams of research showing that voucher programs do not improve academic outcomes, it may have been possible to justify support for vouchers as a mechanism allowing poor children to escape failing public schools. But not only have we seen that those children do no better–and often worse–academically, we have seen legislators substantially raise the income limits for participation. 

Welcome to the new “Christian” version of the old segregation academy…

 

 

 

Blast From The Past Makes Me Happy!!

On family excursions into nature–admittedly, not my strong suit, but hey! grandkids–I became aware of the lasting contributions of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corp. That program not only offered employment to some three million Americans who had found themselves out of work during the Depression—it also built lasting improvements to the nation’s parks, roads and forests.

Workers enrolled in the CCC planted more than three billion trees. They paved 125,000 miles of highways, and built  3,000 fire lookouts.. Trails and structures from the Grand Canyon and the Pacific Coast Trail to the Smokey Mountains remain in use today.

According to The Guardian, Joe Biden has taken a leaf from the CCC–one of FDR’s most popular and successful efforts.

As part his recent climate policy spree, Biden announced the establishment of a “Civilian Climate Corps Initiative” that could harness the energy of the very generation that must face – and solve – the climate crisis by putting them to work in well-paying conservation jobs.

After Biden’s omnibus executive order, the heads of the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture and other departments have 90 days to present their plan to “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers”, a step toward fulfilling Biden’s promise to get the US on track to conserve 30% of lands and oceans by 2030.

This is exactly the sort of effort we need right now. Not only will this Civilian Climate Corp provide gainful and undeniably useful job opportunities at a time when the economy is reeling from COVID, not only will it provide training to young people who participate, not only will it be an important part of America’s response to climate change, but it will offer the demonstrable benefits that attend national public service programs.

This is far removed from “make work” programs. This CCC will work on projects that are clearly and substantively important. The article quotes Mary Ellen Sprenkel, head of the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, for the range of issues such a Corp can address:

Far beyond just planting trees, a new conservation corps could pour money into tackling a bevy of other environmental problems, too. According to Biden’s website, projects will include working to mitigate wildfire risks, protect watershed health, and improve outdoor recreation access. Sprenkel thinks the effort could also include more activities at the community level, like urban agriculture projects and work retrofitting buildings to be more energy-efficient. And as Sprenkel pointed out, the federal government owns and manages thousands of buildings that need help to become more energy-efficient. The buildings “could even become sources of renewable energy generation with solar or wind power installations”, she added.

This reconstituted and reimagined CCC can and should provide apprenticeships and on-the-job education equipping participants for long-term employment. But even more important, at a time when Americans live in very different realities and occupy informational and residential “bubbles,” it will provide the democratic benefits offered by public service programs by bringing young people from widely different backgrounds together.

Back in 2014, I advocated for a new GI Bill that would require young people to enroll in a year of civil service between high school and college or trade school. Among the many benefits of such service would be an appreciation for the role of government; another benefit would be the experience of working with Americans from diverse backgrounds and communities. The original CCC was segregated by race and gender–realities that detracted from its otherwise positive influence. Biden’s CCC, to the contrary, would build non-corporeal bridges along with the physical ones–and it would do so at a time when the bonds of citizenship have become deeply frayed.

My youngest grandson is currently taking a year with Americorp, and as I watch his progress, I can attest to the maturation and  flourishing–and cross-cultural understanding– that occurs in such programs.

I say three cheers for the three Cs!

 

Joe Biden And Childhood Poverty

Joe Biden has been President for barely a month, and he has already proved me wrong.

Don’t misunderstand–I have always really liked Biden. I have read enough stories and heard about enough incidents from people who know him personally to recognize that he is a genuinely decent, caring human being. A mensch. I was in agreement with his platform, and I was happy to vote for him. But his long history of bipartisanship in the Senate–not to mention the Obama Administration’s (constantly rebuffed) efforts to reach across the aisle–led me to expect more of the same.

Instead, Biden hasn’t just “hit the ground running.” He has been aggressive and arguably transformative. He has acted decisively to rid the federal government of the sleeper agents (my terminology, but I’d argue it’s accurate) inserted in various agencies; he’s appointed highly competent, experienced people to replace the corrupt lobbyists and know-nothings intent upon crippling those agencies, and I have applauded his clear commitment to the environment, to ending the pandemic and getting the economy back on track, among numerous other things.

While Biden has been civil and welcoming to Republicans who have made noises about compromise–Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post dubbed Biden’s recent meeting with ten GOP Senators an “exercise in performative bipartisanship”– he’s also made it very clear that he intends to fulfill his campaign promises with or without them. No more falling for what has aptly been called the GOP’s “Lucy and the football” ploys.

In other words, the good news has just kept coming!

And here’s more: I only recently became aware of an incredibly important element of Biden’s pandemic stimulus–a measure that experts say could reduce childhood poverty by fifty percent.

As Nicholas Kristof explained in his column in the New York Times, 

President Biden included a proposal in his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that one study says would cut child poverty by half. We in the news media have focused on direct payments to individuals, but the historic element of Biden’s plan is its effort to slash child poverty.

“The American Rescue Plan is the most ambitious proposal to reduce child poverty ever proposed by an American president,” Jason Furman, a Harvard economist, told me.

It will not surprise anyone to know that this provision was entirely absent from the Republican “compromise” proposal. (The party of “religion and Jesus and children,” as Representative Rosa DeLauro sarcastically put it…Or as Kristof writes, “Jesus says (19:14) suffer the little children to approach him; he absolutely does not recommend that the little children shall suffer.”)

Biden’s plan to address child poverty would expand the existing child tax credit, up to $3,600 a year for young children. There is an existing child tax credit, but the way it currently works, the families that are most in need of it earn too little to take advantage of it. They earn too little to pay taxes, and the credit is taken against taxes owed. So it looks progressive–even magnanimous– but in practice, it isn’t.  

Biden’s plan would change the credit into a monthly stipend–and as Kristof notes, even a sum as modest as $3,600 would be utterly transformative for many low-income families.

One reason to think that this would be so successful is that many other countries have used similar strategies to cut child poverty by large margins. Canada’s parallel approach cut child poverty by 20 to 30 percent, depending on who’s counting, and Britain under Tony Blair cut child poverty in half.

Now that Democrats are in power, Republicans can be expected to protest that the country can’t afford Biden’s plan. (That protest conveniently overlooks the $2.3 trillion dollar cost of their massive tax cut, which primarily enriched the already affluent.) A cost-benefit analysis says we certainly can afford it, because it will ultimately save money– current estimates put the costs of child poverty to the United States at about $1 trillion annually, a sum that reflects reduced adult productivity, increased crime and higher health care costs. 

During the primaries, I worried that both Biden and Bernie were too old. I was wrong. It may be that Biden expects to be a one-term president–a realization that frees him from second-term electoral calculations, and reminds him that he has a limited time to turn the country around. 

Whatever the reason, I’ve never been so happy to be wrong. Biden is on his way to being a truly transformative president.

 

Vouchers And Christian Nationalism

When historians look back at this time–at Trumpism, the insurrection at the Capitol, America’s extreme polarization, and campaigns of continuing disinformation–they will undoubtedly identify a number of contributors to our civic unrest. (I want to point out here that I am being optimistic–I am assuming humanity survives and produces historians…)

One of those contributors will be the state-level voucher programs sending dollars that should support public education to private, overwhelmingly religious schools. As an article in Huffpost reported,

Christian textbooks used in thousands of schools around the country teach that President Barack Obama helped spur destructive Black Lives Matter protests, that the Democrats’ choice of 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton reflected their focus on identity politics, and that President Donald Trump is the “fighter” Republicans want, a HuffPost analysis has found.

The analysis focused on three textbooks from two major publishers of Christian educational materials ― Abeka and BJU Press–used in a majority of Christian schools, and examined  their coverage of American history and politics. All three delivered what you might call a “curated”(i.e. skewed) history, and taught that contemporary America is experiencing “an urgent moral decline that can only be fixed by conservative Christian policies.”

Even more troubling, the analysis found that language used in the books “overlaps with the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, often with overtones of nativism, militarism and racism as well.” One scholar was quoted as saying that, as voucher programs have moved more children into these schools, Christian Nationalism has become more mainstream.

Scholars say textbooks like these, with their alternate versions of history and emphasis on Christian national identity, represent one small part of the conditions that lead to events like last week’s riot at the U.S. Capitol, an episode that was permeated with the symbols of Christian nationalism. Before storming the Capitol, some groups prayed in the name of Jesus and asked for divine protection. They flew Christian and “Jesus 2020” flags and pointed to Trump’s presidency as the will of God. The linkage between Christian beliefs and the violent attack on Congress has since pushed evangelical leaders to confront their own relationship with Trump and their support for the rioters.

Salon published an interview with one of the researchers who conducted the analysis. She found that over 7,000 schools around the country currently participate in a voucher or a tax credit program, and that three quarters of the participating schools were religious. (In Indiana, some 95% of voucher recipients attend a religious school.) At least 30 percent of those schools were using a curriculum provided by Abeka, Accelerated Christian Education, or Bob Jones.

Her description of the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum was hair-raising. You really need to click through and read it. 

She also referenced Indiana, which–as we Hoosiers know– has one of the “more comprehensive voucher programs,” and the millions of taxpayer dollars going to schools that use one of these curricula. She also noted that, In the vast majority of states that have voucher programs, “there is zero oversight over what schools and voucher and tax credit programs are teaching. Quite literally zero.”

These findings are entirely consistent with my own research. When a colleague and I looked to see whether voucher schools are under any state-imposed obligations to teach civics, we found a total lack of any such requirements–and virtually no oversight at all. (A study of religious voucher schools in Louisiana found science classes teaching creationism, along with health and safety violations.)

It’s bad enough that too many legislators–and parents–consider education to be just another consumer good–giving children skills they will need to participate in the marketplace. But even if that were the case, study after study has shown that these programs have failed to improve academic performance.

Private schools, including private religious schools, have a First Amendment right to teach whatever they want–when they are being funded with private dollars. When they are being supported with public dollars taken from public schools, however, as they are in states with voucher programs, the calculus should be different. This is especially the case because public education is also supposed to be a mechanism for instilling Constitutional and democratic values–public schools, as Benjamin Barber memorably wrote, are “constitutive of a public.”

There are fewer and fewer “street corners” in today’s fragmented world, fewer places where people from different cultures, races, religions and perspectives come together in any meaningful way. Economically-separated residential patterns make that ideal hard enough to achieve through public schools–but using tax dollars to create another set of “bubbles” through which rightwing extremists can deny science and transmit a Christian Nationalist worldview is both a betrayal of our public obligations and yet another reason for America’s declining civic cohesion.

Constitutional Rights At The Schoolhouse Door

As regular readers of this blog and my former students know, I  approach my course on “Law and Public Affairs” through a constitutional lens. There are some obvious reasons for that focus: many of my students will work for government agencies, and will be  legally obliged to adhere to what I have sometimes called “the Constitutional Ethic.” Due to the apparent lack of civic education in the nation’s high schools, a troubling number of  graduate students come to class with very hazy understandings of the country’s legal foundations.

Freedom of speech seems particularly susceptible to misunderstanding.

The first problem is that a significant number of Americans don’t “get” that  the Bill of Rights only restrains government. Walmart or the Arts and Entertainment Channel or (as one angry caller insisted when I was at the ACLU) White Castle cannot be sued for denying you your First Amendment Right to express yourself.

The most difficult concept for my students, however, has been the principle of content neutrality. Government can–within reasonable limits– regulate the time, place and manner of citizens’ communication, but it cannot favor some messages over others. (I used to illustrate that rule by explaining that city ordinances could prohibit sound trucks from operating in residential neighborhoods between the hours of 10 pm and 7 am, but could not allow trucks advocating for candidate Smith while banning those for candidate Jones. I had to discontinue that example when I realized that none of today’s students had the slightest idea what a sound truck was…)

One example I did continue to use was public school efforts to control T-shirts with messages on them. Private schools can do what they wish–they aren’t government–but public schools cannot constitutionally favor some messages over others. This is evidently a lesson that many Indiana schools have yet to learn. A brief article from the Indianapolis Star reports that the ACLU is suing a school in Manchester, Indiana, after a student was forced by administrators to go home for wearing a T-shirt with the text “I hope I don’t get killed for being Black today.”

According to the Complaint, students at the school are allowed to wear T-shirts with Confederate flags and “Blue Lives Matter” slogans. It describes the plaintiff, who is identified only by his initials, as one of the few Black students at the school.

“Schools cannot selectively choose which social issues students can support through messages on their clothing,” Ken Falk, the ACLU of Indiana’s legal director, said in a prepared statement on Monday. “Students do not lose their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse doors. The refusal of the school to allow D.E. to wear his t-shirt is a violation of his right to free speech.”

The school would be within its rights to ban all “message” T-shirts (although I can hear the grumbling now). Favoring certain messages over others, however, is a violation of the principle of content-neutrality –a core precept of the Free Speech Clause that prohibits government from favoring some messages over others.

The courts give school administrators a good deal more leeway than other government actors, on the theory that providing an educational environment requires a larger measure of control than would be appropriate for adults. But there are limits; as Ken Falk noted, and the Supreme Court affirmed in Tinker v. DeMoinesstudents do not leave their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.

Far too many school administrators are more focused on exerting control than on modeling or transmitting basic constitutional values. Too many public schools are operated as totalitarian regimes–environments that stress compliance and group-think, rather than teaching critical thinking, acquainting young people with the values of a democratic society, and encouraging civic debate and engagement.

When school officials themselves routinely break the rules, is it any wonder so many young people graduate still unaware of them?