I recently wrote about how a recent trip to Ireland revealed that despite the faults of the American educational system, one thing we do get right is the separation of church and state.
Soon after this pat on the back, Donald Trump won the presidential election and put that strength in jeopardy by nominating Betsy DeVos as his new education secretary.
I’m writing about religious freedom and education again, this time with an increased sense of urgency. I’m not seeking to deepen the divide within the education reform movement, since we still share many common goals. Instead, I want to elevate consideration of the pitfalls of vouchers—particularly the threat to the separation of church and state—under an administration that is armed and ready to proliferate them.
Quality and Accountability Matter
Some education reformers are applauding the appointment of DeVos. She is a fervent supporter of school choice, including vouchers (public money for private schools) and for-profit charter schools. Other reformers are not as pleased. In fact, it’s spurred quite a conversation or divisive argument (depending on who you’re talking to) in the space. To follow that, read Robert Pondiscio’s piece in U.S. News & World Report and Peter Cunningham’s response.
Although some education reformers who support vouchers can be quick to create a false narrative around the reasons why, it is true that many of us, including myself, believe that school choice should be public school choice.
For us, DeVos’ nomination is cause for concern. Her backing of vouchers and for-profit education, in concert with her personal allergy to school accountability, is antithetical to the belief that oversight is important when talking about the provision of a public good.
Quality and accountability matter, particularly when one considers the Wild West version of school choice that DeVos supported in Michigan to detrimental ends—80 percent of charters are below the state average in reading and math.
Mixing Public Dollars and Religion
Also to be factored in is the serious consideration of what it means to mix public education dollars and religion in a country built on the separation of church and state.
It’s true that the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case tested the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause in the Supreme Court and lost with a tight 5-4 vote. The five justices decided that Ohio’s Pilot Project Scholarship, which allows students to use vouchers to attend private schools, religiously affiliated or otherwise, was constitutional because Ohio was not coercing parents or, in their view, advancing or inhibiting religion. However, the majority of state constitutions protect against the mixing of public education dollars and religious schools.
DeVos, described by The Washington Post as a “billionaire philanthropist with deep ties to the Christian Reformed community,” may use her increased political influence to try to weaken those state protections and expand the privatization programs she backed within her own state.
The Washington Post has strongly suggested that DeVos’ love of vouchers is connected to her support for Christian education. This is not a leap, since close to 80 percent of students who attend private schools go to religiously affiliated institutions. One can extrapolate that new vouchers would go to religious schools en masse. DeVos herself has said she wished her work regarding school choice could “advance God’s kingdom.”
The DeVos family has also given hundreds of thousands of dollars to support groups that believe in conversion therapy for LGBTQ individuals (the notion that you can “pray the gay away”). Betsy DeVos graduated from a Christian Reformed Church-affiliated college. The Christian Reformed Church believes that homosexuality is “a condition of disordered sexuality that reflects the brokenness of our sinful world.”
The potential implications for LGBTQ youth in our schools are disturbing. Public tax dollars could go towards religious instruction that may degrade them.
I wonder if DeVos and her ilk have considered the fact that championing vouchers doesn’t mean those dollars can be used exclusively for their preferred religion. I doubt that the Trump administration, with a leader known for his inflammatory comments about Muslims, is on board with vouchers for Islamic schools.
In this instance, they may agree with founding father Thomas Jefferson that tax dollars should not be used to circumvent religious freedom: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”
I have no doubt that most reformers—those who support vouchers and those who don’t—believe they have the best interests of children at heart. That’s why it’s important to listen to each other with an open mind. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t voice our divergences for fear of a schism. As my grandmother always said, “We can have disagreements and still be a family.”