Archives for category: Separation of church and state

One question that I have puzzled over again and again is why anyone who really cares about the quality of education would be a proponent of school choice, for example, vouchers for religious schools and charters run as a business. We have an abundance of evidence that these choices don’t usually produce better education. Children from low-performing schools are not being sent with public money to Exeter, Andover, Deerfield Academy, or Sidwell Friends. Instead, they are going to Backwoods Rural Evangelical Church or Mall Academy, which has few certified teachers, no curriculum, and teaches creationism; or they are going to Charter Schools, Inc., where profits matter more than education.

 

This article in Salon by Conor Lynch asserts that the GOP (and I would add, many Democrats who have been bamboozled as well) and corporate America (via ALEC) are complicit in the dumbing down of America. Some candidates, and he singles out Ted Cruz, willingly slander Harvard University (which he attended) as a haven for Communists (and I thought the days of McCarthyism were behind us) and ally themselves in opposition to the scientific evidence about climate change.

 

I have no beef with anyone’s religious beliefs as long as they leave me alone to practice my own religion (or not). But when religion and politics are intermixed, it is not a healthy blend.

 

Lynch writes:

 

Ted Cruz has already made it quite clear that, although he went to Harvard, he is as anti-intellectual as they come; embracing conspiracy theories and comparing the climate change consensus to the theological consensus of the geocentric model during the time of Galileo. Cruz has been adamantly opposed to the entire idea of climate change, and was recently named to be Chairman of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness. Aside from promoting the conspiracy theory that Harvard law is a communist organization, he has promoted other conspiracies that are outright loony, like saying that George Soros was leading a global movement to abolish the game of golf.

 

Marco Rubio is also hostile to anything contradicting his faith, including climate change, while the leading contender for Republican nomination, Scott Walker, has taken the fight directly to academia, calling for major cuts in public university funding in Wisconsin that would add up to about $300 million over two years. He also just fired 57employees from Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources this past Earth Day. Predictably, he doesn’t believe climate change is a big issue either, and possibly has the worst record on environment out of all of the candidates.

 

And so the Republican primaries will be full of the usual evangelical type preaching, damning abortion and calling their Democratic contenders “elitist” snobs, while brushing off those so-called “expert” climate scientists and their warnings. But you can only blame the politicians so much. When it comes down to it, this is simply what a big part of the population expects from their leaders — religious buffoons who embrace a paranoid style of politics; where experts and academics are looked down upon as disconnected and deceitful, and where faith in Jesus and the Bible is the ultimate guiding light. Where one is expected to go with their gut rather than their head, and where “professorial” is an insult. Anti-intellectualism is an American tradition, and these new contenders denying scientific facts and calling Harvard a communist institution are simply embracing a populace that individuals like Billy Sunday and Joseph McCarthy once embraced. The alliance of religion and big business has fully incorporated America’s unfortunate anti-intellectualist culture, which has resulted in millions of people voting against their interest because of their own ignorant hostility towards anything that could be deemed elitist. It is a cycle of ignorance and poverty, and it is exactly what the real elites, like billionaire oil men, aim for.

 

The American writer, Issac Asimov, once said, “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” Unfortunately, this thread has continued to this day, and individuals like Ted Cruz and Scott Walker are here to remind us that ignorance can be quite competitive with knowledge, as long as there’s money behind it.

 

Several governors have slashed spending on higher education–such as Douglas Ducey in Arizona, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana. Why? Do they want to stop young Americans from learning about science and history? In some states, the expansion of charter schools is coupled with the abandonment of teacher credentials. The combination of vouchers to attend religious schools, lowered standards for entry to teaching, and budget cuts for higher education is ominous.

A letter to the editor:

“Private School Tax Credits

New York Times Letter To the Editor: by DONNA LIEBERMAN, Executive Director, New York Civil Liberties Union MAY 22, 2015

Re “Cuomo Promotes Tax Credits for Families of Students at Private Schools”

The right to a meaningful public education is at the core of our democracy, and educational opportunity must be available to all children on a fair and equitable basis, no matter how poor they are, no matter what their educational needs are, and no matter their race, religion or sexual orientation. Unfortunately, the proposal by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York to divert money from public schools to private and religious schools is not about improving public education for all children. It is not about choice. It is about allowing hedge funds and millionaires to siphon money away from public schools to support their narrow idea of what education should look like.

This includes private schools for the 1 percent, religious schools that can throw children out and dismiss teachers for having the wrong faith — or no faith — and privately owned and operated charter schools that operate without accountability and would turn our underfunded public schools into a dumping ground for New York’s neediest and most challenging students.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/22/opinion/private-school-tax-credits.html?mabReward=CTM&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&region=CColumn&module=Recommendation&src=rechp&WT.nav=RecEngine&_r=0″

The East Ramapo school district is in terrible trouble. The majority of voters are Orthodox Jews, whose children attend religious schools. The public schools are predominantly African-American and Hispanic. The elected school board is dominated by members of the local Orthodox Jewish majority. They have cut spending for the public schools and are accused of diverting money to private yeshivas. which their children attend.

Currently, a bill is in the Legislature to establish a state monitor to protect the rights of the students in the public schools. There is intensive political pressure to kill the bill.

“A bill that would establish a state monitor for the East Ramapo School District, where a school board dominated by Orthodox Jews has drawn criticism for diverting money from public schools to children in local yeshivas, faces an uncertain future after running into resistance in the New York Legislature…..

“Roughly 9,000 students, the vast majority of them black or Latino, attend public schools in the district, while about 24,000 students who live there attend yeshivas. Because they vote in large numbers, Orthodox Jews have held a majority of board seats in East Ramapo since 2005. Since 2005, the board has made severe cuts to public schools, eliminating 445 positions; reducing full-day kindergarten to a half-day; and dropping half the district’s athletic programs and extracurricular activities, the state investigation found.

During the same period, spending on the transportation of students to private schools has increased sharply, and the district has in some cases paid for special education students to attend private schools when similar services were available in public schools. Parents of public school students have grown distrustful of the board, whose meetings have at times devolved into shouting matches between members and the public.”

The Board of Regents should step in to protect the students.

I am generally opposed to state takeovers, as in Newark, where the state has been in control for 20 years. State control is not a way to improve schools. But when the local board is not acting in the best interest of children, as in East Ramapo, action is necessary.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed a tuition tax credit bill that is widely recognized as a backdoor voucher. The tax credits would benefit wealthy individuals and corporations. Cuomo has said this measure is a high-priority for him, and he has campaigned with Catholic clerics and in Orthodox Jewish communities.

The rationale, as with all privatization proposals, is to help low-income students escape “failing schools.” In fact, the plan will drain at least $150 million annually from the state’s education funds, which will harm far more low-income students than those who depart for religious schools.

Bruce Baker has taken a close look at the way the tuition tax credit actually works, and it is very disturbing. He notes that an Orthodox Jewish sect created a tiny village in Néw York called Kiryas Joel. It was started in the late 1970s, is populated mainly by Satmar Jews, whose first language is Yiddish. The village sought recognition from the state as an independent school district, which would have been exclusively religious in nature. In 1989, the legislature complied, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law.

Baker quotes this summary:

“In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court held that the statute’s purpose was to exclude all but those who lived in and practiced the village enclave’s extreme form of Judaism. This exclusionary intent failed to respect the Establishment Clause’s requirement that states maintain a neutral position with respect to religion, because it clearly created a school zone which excluded those who were non-religious and/or did not practice Samtar Hasidism. Indeed, the very essence of the Establishment Clause is that government should not demonstrate a preference for one religion over another, or religion over non-religion in general.”

Ironically, as Baker shows, Cuomo’s proposal would give Kiryas Joel what it lost at the Supreme Court.

Folks, as vouchers and tuition tax credits spread, we are heading into uncharted waters: the state will subsidize Protestant schools, Catholic schools, Jewish schools, Muslim schools, evangelical schools, and schools of every other religion and sect.

Is this about better education? What do you think?

Our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution and the Amendments with full knowledge of the religious wars that had devastated Europe for centuries. They wanted Americans to have freedom of religion but they did not want the state to establish or sponsor any religion. They were wiser than us.

Todd Kaminsky, a Democratic Assemblyman from Long Island, stated his unequivocal opposition to Governor Cuomo’s tax credit proposal–a thinly veiled voucher that will benefit children who attend religious schools. However, the election is over, and now Assemblymember Kaminsky thinks that vouchers are a swell idea.

Maybe he thought that local parents are so busy fighting high-stakes testing that they wouldn’t notice that he wants to take money from their schools and send it to yeshivas, parochial schools, and madrasahs.

During the campaign, he was a vocal opponent of vouchers and received the endorsement of the teachers’ union. He said:

““It’s something that’s not going to happen,” Kaminsky said at the time. “Last year, it did not come up for a vote in the Assembly. I don’t know if it will again, but I can tell you it’s not something I favor.”

Now the election is over and the fickle Mr. Kaminsky says, “there’s a difference between campaigning and governing….”

“Nassau County’s Five Towns area, which Kaminsky represents, has a strong and growing Orthodox Jewish community. During our conversation, the assemblyman noted the tendency of Orthodox families to have many children, which puts a strain on their education budgets.”

Tennessee is the latest state considering vouchers, euphemistically calling them “opportunity scholarships.” The Senate Education Committee passed them. They will be considered by the House on Tuesday.

Why not be honest and call them what they are: vouchers. If the experience of other states is a guide, low-income students will have the “opportunity” to attend religious schools that have a meager curriculum and uncertified teachers, and students will learn creationism. The students will likely have lower test scores than their peers in the schools they left.

Funding is up to the districts, which are mandated to participate.

What a waste of children’s lives and taxpayer dollars.

The Sun-Sentinel published an editorial calling on Florida’s courts to review the state’s rapidly growing voucher program, which now enrolls 69,000 students. Despite the fact that the state constitution bans spending public funds on religious schools, either “directly or indirectly,” most of the state’s voucher students attend religious schools. In 2012, the voters of Florida defeated a constitutional amendment that would have deleted the language banning the funding of religious schools. The vote was not close: the proposal failed by a margin of 58-42.

 

The voucher program started in 2002-03 with a limit of $50 million, targeting poor students. This year, the limit on the voucher program is $358 million. With a 25% increase allowed every year, the program may expend $904 million by 2018-19. It is no longer limited to poor students, but is available to families near the state’s median income of $62,000 for a family of four.

 

So how in the world is it legal or constitutional to pay for students to attend religious schools in a state explicitly prohibits expending public money for religious schools?

 

The editorial says:

 

The lawsuit rests on two points. The Florida Constitution bans the spending of public money “directly or indirectly” on religious schools. Diversion of corporate taxes owed to the state through a nonprofit called Step Up for Students and given to parents as vouchers, the plaintiffs argue, does not get around the constitutional ban.

 

Also, the Constitution requires that the state provide a “uniform” system of public schools. Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall calls the voucher program a “parallel” system.” Voucher schools don’t have to give the FCAT or any of the other punitive tests that have so angered parents across the state. Voucher schools must give only a national achievement test.

 

John Kirtley, chairman of “Step Up for Students,” which is authorized to administer the voucher program, actively lobbies for voucher expansion (Step Up for Students receives many millions from the legislature for its role). And its leaders in turn give money to legislators to protect and expand the program.

 

The Sun-Sentinel writes:

 

Kirtley and his wife gave roughly $524,000 in the last election cycle, almost all of it to Republicans. Kirtley also is chairman of the Florida Federation for Children, which successfully targeted voucher critics with roughly $1.3 million in campaign contributions.

 

Voucher supporters portray critics as hostile to school choice for minorities. Whatever compelling anecdotes supporters use, however, there is no compelling evidence the program is succeeding. Example: If minorities are benefiting, why do black students score 20 points lower than white students on those tests?

 

No state has a bigger voucher system. Last year, Florida spent $286 million on just 2.7 percent of all students. Iowa spent $13.5 million on 2.6 percent of its students.

 

Florida is on the way to spending $1 billion on a program with questionable accountability that could be the start of an attempt to privatize public education.

 

Legal review of the voucher program is long overdue.

Containing his discussion of the Founders’ rationale for separating church and state, Frank Brealin writes:

“There was a second reason why the Founders feared that bringing religion into politics would have a divisive effect on our young nation — the rise of political and religious opportunists, who would inflame political issues to further themselves. Religion would become both a theatrical performance and a political tool as charlatans hypocritically showboated their piety to manipulate the crowd for political gain.

“Religious hypocrites would disguise their lack of convictions by putting their finger in their mouth, holding it high in the air to determine which way the political wind was blowing, and telling their audience what it wanted to hear. These individuals well understood the art of inciting “enthusiasm” or hysteria toward some plan of action and labeling it “the Will of God.”

“The Founders would have blanched at a government official returning to constituents and pandering to their religious prejudices to gain a following or court popularity. Not that an official couldn’t take part in a religious service, but only as a private citizen and not as a member of government, lest people think that he were lending the power and prestige of his office to their church or religion….

“As experienced men of the world, the Founding Fathers also knew how some politicians or government agencies might use religion on an impressionable audience to seek power, votes, or advancement. Some of the Founders were also highly educated, even erudite, men, especially Thomas Jefferson, whose library contained a Who’s Who of great authors, one of whom was the French playwright Moliere, and one of whose plays was Tartuffe, the incarnation of religious hypocrisy.

“It is both an uproarious romp into the icy regions of a terrible inner emptiness devoid of conviction, as well as a manual for observing the bobbings and weavings of unctuous sanctimony raised to high art.

“In that great patrician school of Parisian sophistication, it was thought that the only way to effect moral reform was not by sermons, but by being laughed at, since few can survive the acid of ridicule. Many don’t mind being thought a scoundrel, but no one a fool! Castigat ridendo mores (“Comedy corrects manners”) was the essence of Moliere’s art that skewered human folly in its many guises.”

Frank Breslin, retired teacher of history and languages, explains here why the Founders of our nation insisted on separation of church and state.

He begins:

“We have a long tradition in America of the Separation of Church and State that prohibits government’s promotion of religion, on the one hand, and interference with its free exercise, on the other. In their refusal to establish a state church or to favor one religion over another, the Founding Fathers did not think that religion was bad, but that there was something amiss in human nature, a certain tendency, a will to power, a lust for domination, that always bore watching.

“It was a virus that lay dormant until its host came to power, whereupon that person or group of persons became suddenly rabid with a mania that sought to punish or persecute everyone not of their fold or persuasion. Paradoxically, the guise under which this malady manifested itself, as the history of Europe made only too plain, was that of religion.

“The Founders thought that religion, something good in itself, could be used for good or bad ends, and, unless preventive measures were taken, it could induce in the susceptible a form of madness so malignant and destructive as to destroy the very essence of religion itself. By persecuting whoever refused to accept their religion or whose lives were deemed as insufficiently righteous, those now in power imposed a religious tyranny so suffocating in its totalitarian grip, scope, and detail that one immediately thinks of barbed wire and concentration camps.

“”Nothing was ever made straight with the crooked timber of humanity,” was Immanuel Kant’s take on such would-be utopians in their spiritual Gulags. Even something as pure and noble as religious feeling, given the weak human vessels in which it was housed, could become tragically twisted, bringing into the world unspeakable horrors.”

A Satanist group asked permission from the Orange County school board in Florida to distribute coloring books in the public schools. The cartoon books would show children performing Satanic rituals and drawing pentagrams. Up until now, the school board had allowed Christian groups to distribute Bibles in school and gave atheists to distribute their materials. Now the Orange County school board may ban the distribution of any religious materials in the schools. This seemed to be a settled principle in our schools since school prayer was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962. But with the recent resurgence of vouchers, most of which are used in religious schools, the question of separation of church and state has become relevant again.

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