Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Religious Vouchers

One of the problems that has already been documented with school voucher programs is that they tend to shuttle public tax dollars to private religious schools.

Now, not everyone considers that a problem, exactly. As far as I know, she's never said so out loud, exactly, but given what we know about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, it seems likely that she considers this a feature, not a bug. And Cato, the libertarian thinky tank, has taken to arguing on line that having taxpayers pay to send students to the private religious school is the only way to have religious equality and freedom in this country, a piece of pretzel logic that make my head hurt a little.

Why should we care about using public tax dollars to fund private religious schools?

Well, separation of church and state seems like a good idea. Historically, we have never seen a country run by religious authorities that has worked out well (at least not for anyone not actually in power). Spanish Inquisition. Salem Witch Trials. When a religious group has the opportunity to use the power of the civil government to enforce their religious orthodoxy, it tends to end poorly, with a lot of oppression and mistreatment and even torture and death. It is bad for civil government to be taken over by a church. The separation of church and state is also good for the church; when you mix religion and politics, you get politics, and suddenly the church is far less interested in God than in power plays and money and pleasing Important Humans rather than the Great I Am.

Once schools start becoming seats of state-sponsored religion, we have opened the door to letting the state decide which religions to authorize. Once vouchers can be used for church-run schools, you know it's only a matter of time before the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the local Satanist group is petitioning the state for a cut of the funds. Eventually only one of two things can happen-- either the state will refuse to step in, signaling that anybody can open any fake church and try to score some of that sweet tax cash, leading to a cynical debasing of religion; or, the state can start ruling that certain religious schools may not get tax dollars and voila! we have a state agency ruling on the legitimacy of certain religions. And if you think that this will only affect bizarre religions, let me remind you that some protestants once gave the Catholic Church the cute nickname, "the Whore of Babylon."

While we're clearing that hurdle, we can also wrestle with religious schools that feel their faith requires them to reject Those People or even the children of Those People. Again, does the government step in to extend its reach and rules into private religious institutions, or does it allow public tax dollars to be spent on what would otherwise be illegal discrimination? Either solution is going to be unacceptable to someone.

There is one other issue raised here, and it really cuts to the heart of balancing freedom against responsible citizenship.

The League of Women Voters took a look at where vouchers were going in North Carolina, a state that has been vouchering it up for four years. The answer was "mostly to fundamentalist Christian schools." But then the League's researcher looked at what the schools were doing with that money, and the answer turns out to be "teaching a lot of bunk." For instance, many use the A Beka textbook series:

Students reading A Beka's textbooks learn that God created the world in six days 6,000 years ago, Noah’s Ark is a true story that happened during the Great Flood around 2500 B.C., and the flood’s runoff formed the Grand Canyon. The textbooks are also laced with critical comments from a deeply conservative perspective.

The researcher asked her husband, a former chair of the UNC Asian Studies department, to look at the Asian history portion. He found it riddled with errors and said it was "nonsense." 

This is not a new issue. Texas has long loved some terribly inaccurate and biased textbooks. And the long troubled history of creationism in the classroom is a huge problem, as it often comes with an approach to science that simply doesn't prepare students for any actual science. 

So what do we do with policy initiatives that use public funding to teach students things that are just not so? I know some of my readers lean conservative, but if you want to use my tax dollars to teach children that the earth is flat, that the earth is only a few thousand years old, the evolution is wrong, that black people are an inferior race, that homosexuality can be cured, or any of the various distortions of Us history-- well, I'm not sure how we have that conversation because I can't see any reason to doubt that you are flat out dead wrong. And it's not just a matter of "It's my kid so I'll teach her what I want to" personal freedom, because every student who gets this kind of education is one more misinformed uneducated person released into society, and that damages and diminishes us as a country. When uninformed miseducated hold jobs, or raise children of their own, or vote, bad things happen that cause problems for everybody.

Every opinion about how the world works is not equally valid, and opinions do not become facts just because someone believes them real hard. And as a society, if we fund bad education, that becomes a problem.

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/ned-barnett/article212352824.html#storylink=cpy



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