Tag Archives: vouchers

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…

 

 

 

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.

Subsidizing Bigotry

As the country’s diversity and tribalism have grown, America’s public schools have become more necessary than ever. The public school is one of the last “street corners” where children of different backgrounds and beliefs come together to learn–ideally–not just “reading, writing and arithmetic” but the history and philosophy of the country they share.

Today’s Americans read different books and magazines, visit different websites, listen to different music, watch different television programs, and occupy different social media bubbles. In most communities, we’ve lost a shared daily newspaper. The experiences we do share continue to diminish.

Given this fragmentation, the assaults on public education are assaults on a shared America.

Nevertheless, politicians and (especially) religious adherents who feel threatened by diversity and modernity have worked tirelessly to support voucher programs that allow parents to remove their children from public school systems and send them to private–almost always religious–schools, where they study with “their own kind.” The rhetoric around these programs typically defends them as “allowing children to escape failing schools”–although those “failing” schools are hardly helped by sending their already inadequate resources to private schools–despite consistent research showing that vouchers virtually never lead to academic improvement. (They do, however, lead to increased racial segregation.)

As an added indignity, voucher programs send tax dollars to schools that discriminate against LGBTQ children and children with LGBTQ parents. Here in Indiana, Cathedral High School, which received over a million dollars in 2018, fired a gay teacher;  Roncalli High School, which also has accepted vouchers worth millions fired a much-loved gay counselor who was in a same-sex marriage.

Recently, in a welcome announcement, two major contributors to Florida’s voucher program announced that they would no longer be contributing to that state’s program, which also allowed recipient schools to deny admission to gay students.

Two of the largest banks in the U.S. say they will stop donating millions of dollars to Florida’s private school voucher program after a newspaper investigation found that some of the program’s beneficiaries discriminate against LGBTQ students.

In a statement to NBC News and CNBC on Wednesday evening, Wells Fargo confirmed that it would no longer participate.

“We have reviewed this matter carefully and have decided to no longer support Step Up for Students,” the San Francisco-based bank said of the voucher program. “All of us at Wells Fargo highly value diversity and inclusion, and we oppose discrimination of any kind.”

In a tweet to a Florida lawmaker Tuesday, Fifth Third Bank, based in Cincinnati, said it has told officials with the voucher program that it will also stop participating.

An investigation by the Orlando Sentinel found 156 private Christian schools with anti-gay views that participated in Florida’s program. Those schools educated more than 20,000 students whose tuition was paid by Florida taxpayers–including, obviously, LGBTQ taxpayers.

The investigation found that 83 of the 156 schools with anti-gay views refuse to enroll LGBTQ students, and that some number of those schools also exclude students whose parents are gay.

“Florida’s scholarship programs, often referred to as school vouchers, sent more than $129 million to these religious institutions,” the Sentinel reported on Jan. 23. “That means at least 14 percent of Florida’s nearly 147,000 scholarship students last year attended private schools where homosexuality was condemned or, at a minimum, unwelcome.”

So much for the American “street corner” and our commitment to civic equality.

We taxpayers are subsidizing segregation and bigotry–without realizing the promised improvement in academic outcomes.

 

How Children Become American

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a column in the Washington Post addressing the critical role of the nation’s schools in integrating the children of immigrants into American culture.

Public schools are an essential tool for creating citizens–whether those citizens are “home grown” or new arrivals–and I certainly agreed with the points being made.

The idea of citizenship — of members of the republic being responsible for the quality of their own government — made America unique at its founding. Until James Madison made “We, the People” the foundation of the Constitution, other modern nations were full of subjects, rather than citizens. For citizens to choose their new leaders successfully, they needed to become informed electors. Safeguarding America’s fragile experiment required voters, almost exclusively propertied white men, to attend political discussions and read the newspaper.

As the country grew beyond the revolutionary period and the rights of citizenship began to include non-property-owning white men, the country increasingly embraced the idea that all white Americans needed to be well educated to ensure effective self-government. In the decades that followed, the country’s public education system was predicated on producing such citizens. “The children of a republic [must] be fitted for a society as well as for themselves,”said Horace Mann, the founder of the common school movement, in 1842. “As each citizen is to participate in the power over governing others, it is an essential preliminary that he should be imbued with a feeling for the wants, and a sense of rights, of those whom he is to govern.” Only schools could effectively achieve that goal.

As the column notes, when millions of Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants arrived in the United States, concerns about “culture change” prompted public school systems to emphasizing teaching about the Constitution, American history, and the obligations of citizens in a democracy.

Students also gained exposure to an increasing number of ways to engage politically. In textbook after textbook, discussion after discussion, students learned to write their representatives, volunteer for causes they cared about, and write pieces for their newspapers about issues that mattered to them. In at least one major American city, Boston, most students took at least five classes on how to be the type of citizen who bettered democracy.

How times have changed!

As the article concedes, today we no longer have a shared notion of what constitutes good citizenship. And we certainly don’t teach our children.

Students in many states take no civics classes. Worse, as American schools have abandoned civics, American  lawmakers have largely abandoned any commitment to public education– funding vouchers and other privatization efforts.

And it matters.

Americans increasingly access different news sites and blogs, read different books (when they read at all), patronize different entertainment options, profess different religions–the life experiences we share have diminished pretty dramatically. Public schools are one of the last remaining “street corners,” where children from different backgrounds learn together. (Given residential segregation, even public school classrooms are less inclusive of difference than is optimal, but public schools beat most other venues.)

State voucher programs disproportionately send children to religious schools, where attendees share a particular religious background. There are no requirements that such schools teach civics, and no way to know whether or how they teach what it means to be an American.

If the knowledge displayed by my undergraduate students is representative, they don’t teach anything about the Constitution and embarrassingly little about the country’s history, good or bad.

The cited article argues that the schools can and should produce informed American citizens. Obviously, I agree–this is a drum I’ve been beating for a very long time.

But first, we need to reaffirm our commitment to public education. Among other things, that means funding public schools and their teachers adequately. It means terminating the voucher programs that siphon money from those public schools, and doing much more to regulate and monitor charter schools (which are public schools.)

As Benjamin Barber has written, America’s public schools are constitutive of the public.

They are essential.

Vouchers, Discrimination And Corruption

Indiana has the largest, most costly school voucher program in the country.

How wasteful/counterproductive is our state’s largesse to private (mostly religious) schools? Let me count the ways: the promised improvement in student achievement did not materialize; badly-needed funds have been diverted from the public schools that most Hoosier children still attend; taxpayers are subsidizing discrimination (schools getting millions of dollars are discharging teachers and counselors for the “sin” of being in same-sex marriages); and there are no requirements that recipients of vouchers teach civics.

Now we also find that the lack of oversight has facilitated a massive rip off of Hoosier taxpayers. Doug Masson has written the best summary of that problem.

The joke is that dead people vote in Chicago. Apparently they go to school in Indiana. Stephanie Wang, reporting for Chalkbeat Indiana, has an article about the Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathway Academy which, among a number of other abuses, kept a dead kid on their claims for state money for two years after he died.

Five years after two students moved to Florida, they reappeared on enrollment records for Indiana Virtual School and its sister school.

And nearly every one of the more than 900 students kicked out of Indiana Virtual School and its sister school in the 2017-18 school year for being inactive were re-enrolled the next school year, included in per-pupil funding calculations that netted the two online schools more than $34 million in public dollars last year.

These were among the ways that Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy allegedly inflated their enrollment to at least twice its actual size, according to the findings of a state examiner’s investigation released Monday.

As Doug points out, heads would roll if it was discovered that a public school was manipulating its Average Daily Membership (ADM).

The virtual school superintendent responded by reminding everyone that these weren’t great students and also freedom.

In a written response to the state education board, Clark did not address the enrollment discrepancies but defended the online schools for serving “last-chance students” who have dropped out of or been expelled from traditional public schools — even if they weren’t active.

He accused state education officials of trying “to remove educational choice and force students to remain in school environments in which success has evaded them and where hope has abandoned them.”

“The beacon of hope has just been doused,” Clark concluded.

Doug’s response to this asinine defense was a perfect bit of snark: “Also, I’d add that if you make public money for voucher schools contingent on providing actual services to actual students, then the terrorists win. Obviously.”

Initially, many people who favored vouchers truly believed that such programs would “rescue” poor children trapped in failing schools. (In true American style, it didn’t occur to most of them to advocate fixing those schools.) They pointed to better outcomes in private schools, conveniently overlooking sociological differences between families sending children to private schools and others. (Studies controlling for those differences found no statistically significant differences.)

However well-meaning those initial supporters were, the evidence is in: in addition to the consequences enumerated above, vouchers are yet another wedge between America’s tribes, separating children of different religions (and in many places, races, as their use increasingly re-segregates school populations) from each other.

In addition to providing academic instruction, public schools serve as a “street corner” for children from different backgrounds. Given residential segregation based on income, that street corner is admittedly imperfect, but it nevertheless fosters more civic integration than the religious institutions that separate the theologically acceptable from the “others.”

Let’s face the facts: vouchers were a (very clever) “work around” allowing tax dollars to flow to religious schools despite the Establishment Clause–part of the continuing fundamentalist assault on separation of church and state.

And they haven’t even improved children’s education.