Archives for category: Separation of church and state

Sarah Vowell is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times where this article appeared. Proponents of vouchers often claim that the state prohibitions on public funding of religious schools were birthed in anti-Catholic bigotry, based on the Blaine Amendment, which was offered as a Constitutional amendment after the Civil War but failed to be adopted. Many states wrote their own “baby Blaine” amendments to assure that no public money went to religious schools–not just Catholic schools, but religious schools of any kind. The case now before the Supreme Court, Espinoza v. Montana, asserts the claim that refusal to fund religious schools is bigotry towards those schools. Sarah Vowell explains that the Montana constitution was rewritten in 1972. It included a strict prohibition against funding religious schools because the people of Montana can barely afford to pay for the public schools they have. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Espinoza, it will impoverish the public schools of Montana. That is why the suit is supported by the far-right Institute for Justice and their funders such as the Walton and DeVos families.

 

Scrutinizing the avuncular sphinx Chief Justice John Roberts throughout the impeachment trial of President Trump, I kept wondering whether he will preserve or ransack the legacy of the framers we revere — framers like the Republican Betty Babcock and the Democrat Dorothy Eck. It’s the question on all Americans’ minds: Do Mr. Roberts and his eight co-workers fully appreciate the public-spirited grandeur of the winter of 1971-72, when 100 Montanans, including housewives, ministers, a veterinarian and a beekeeper, gathered at the state capital, Helena, for the constitutional convention, affectionately nicknamed the “Con Con”?

The question haunts the current Supreme Court case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. This newspaper has called the dispute over whether state tax credits can apply to donations for scholarships to private religious schools “a proxy battle over school choice.” However, the back story is so clumsily specific to Montana’s small population and immense geography that the case doesn’t entirely translate to states where people outnumber cows.

The novelist Ivan Doig wrote that in the scruffy Montana of yore, “when you met up with someone apt to give you trouble from his knuckles, the automatic evaluation was ‘too much Butte in him.’” When, as the grateful graduate of a Montana public school, I was determining whether I had a duty to stick up for the Con Con framers regarding the Espinoza case, I spotted a sequence in the web address of an article about it in The Atlantic that read “montana-bigoted-laws.” At that moment this Bozeman girl had too much Butte in her. Dorothy Eck wrote no “bigoted” anti-Christian laws — she was a blatant Methodist!

Before it ended up at the Supreme Court, the Espinoza ruckus started with a $150 tax credit. Montanans will make an appellate-level stink about chump change because that’s the only available change. The tiny tax base is basically eight coal miners, a couple of ski lift operators, that family in Belgrade making organic goat cheese and Huey Lewis.

Kendra Espinoza counted on scholarships to help pay for her daughters’ tuition at Stillwater Christian, a private school in Kalispell. No wonder. At up to $8,620 per year, ninth grade is more than $1,000 higher than undergraduate tuition at the University of Montana. What we called a “band room” at Bozeman High, Stillwater considers a “conservatory.”

School choice partisans pounced when Ms. Espinoza and other private-school parents sued to overturn the State Supreme Court’s ruling that the tax credit for scholarship donations violated the “no-aid” clause for sectarian schools in the Montana Constitution. They argued that it was time to erase “antiquated” anti-Catholic laws against public funding for private religious education. The subtle former state senator Matthew Monforton denounced the law as “Jim Crow for Christians.”

It is worth pointing out that the eighth word of the ’72 Constitutionis “God.” In the first draft of the preamble, some wistful Jeffersonians tried to thank the “Spirit of the Creator” for “the quiet beauty of our state.” They were shot down in the Bill of Rights Committee because “not mentioning ‘God’ specifically would be unacceptable” and so they “voted unanimously to retain Him in the Preamble.” The framers included a priest from Great Falls, Mitt Romney’s cousin Miles, the self-proclaimed “first Roman Catholic ever elected to anything in Yellowstone County,” and enough Presbyterians to warrant their own photo op.

While the ’72 Constitution’s no-aid clause looks similar to its predecessor in the 1889 original, the update was motivated by fortifying public schools, not shunning people of faith. Rethinking education was, along with open government and the right to individual dignity, part of the Con Con’s crusade to take a stand that no one dared dream of at statehood: that Montana would be a state in a republic and not an exceedingly wide company town.

“We were known as the state that wore the copper collar, controlled by the Anaconda Company,” Ms. Eck once said. A swashbuckler for the League of Women Voters, she referred to the copper company lording over the “richest hill on earth” and thus the newspapers and politicians. “There were stories of how their lobbyists would sit in the balcony at the legislature and do thumbs up and thumbs down of how people should vote.”

The Con Con delegates, who arranged themselves not by party but alphabetically, were so preoccupied with the public interest that they agreed public funds could be spent only on public agencies. During deliberations on the no-aid clause, the pastor of Helena’s Plymouth Congregational led the charge of “preserving our public school system,” preaching, “that’s what this issue is all about. I don’t think we ought to dilute that in any way.” (Diluting that is the aim of Espinoza.)

Article X, Section 1, of the ’72 Constitution proclaims that it is the duty of the state to “develop the full educational potential of each person.” That is an expensive ideal in a desolate wasteland. Public schools are supposed to be a volume business, but tell that to the Great Plains. The state of Montana has about 60,000 fewer inhabitants than the number of students enrolled in New York City’s public school system. I have volunteered in that epic system, which is to say I have had to excuse myself from a struggling student to go cry in a bathroom, so I sympathize with an urban kid who might eye a parochial school as her best chance.

That school choice logic doesn’t apply to Montana, where the poorest schools often have the smallest class sizes. The Montana Free Press reported that out in Prairie County, “Terry High School’s sophomore class has just five students this school year.” Starting in first grade, my friend Genevieve would ride her horse Croppy to the Malmborg School near Bozeman Pass; one year she and her brother Pete were half the student body.

When USA Today asked Ms. Espinoza if she had any qualms about what her case could mean for public schools, she insisted, “They have plenty of money.”

How I wish that were true. Last year, the public school district in Kalispell announced $1.7 million in budget cuts, Great Falls recently lost almost a hundred teachers, and Billings just announced about $4 million in cuts that mean canceling fifth grade orchestra and band.

A Supreme Court decision on Espinoza is expected in June. If the justices rule against Montana’s voters, tax credits for private school scholarship donations could surge. Revenue that might revive the Billings fifth grade band program could underwrite the fifth grade band at a pricey Kalispell private school.

Kalispell is the seat of Flathead County, which between 2000 and 2015 added more than 15,000 jobs just as rural Choteau County was losing more than 300. Overturning the no-aid clause will shovel more money into the cities (where most of the private schools are) and kick Choteau while it’s down, thereby thwarting the framers’ plan to spare needy districts from taxing “their residents three or four times as much as rich districts to provide less than half as much money per student.”

The public schools the framers conjured ask the taxpayers to splurge on fairness, not privilege, to pull together, not away. That beekeeper, those clergymen and moms chartered a state in a republic where a first grader on horseback is supposed to be as big and important as the mountains. As the Supreme Court justices ponder whether to upend all that over what appears to be a $150 trifle, I’ll pass along this lesson of Montana winters: A collapsed roof starts with a single snowflake.

Sarah Vowell, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of “The Wordy Shipmates” and “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.”

The future of public education hangs in the balance. The US Supreme Court has shifted far to the right, with the addition of religious zealots Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. The case, Espinoza v. Montana, would permit them to eliminate the line of separations between church and state, abolishing every state constitutional provision that bars public funding of religious schools. The Court has already ruled that religious “freedom” makes it permissible for a place of business to refuse service to someone based on their sexual orientation, if that refusal is based on sincere religious beliefs. Will we one day learn that racial discrimination is permissible so long as it is based on sincere religious beliefs? The possibilities for destroying basic principles of civil rights and liberties in the name of religious freedom are frightening. I am reminded that when Jeb Bush wanted to eliminate the no-aid-to religious-schools in Florida, he gave his replacement the deceptive title of “the Religious Freedom Amendment.” Voters turned it down 55-45 in 2012. He and the legislature went ahead to create multiple voucher programs, despite the clear language of the state constitution and the will of the voters.

Here is the view of the National Education Policy Center:

Landmark Voucher Case Could Foster Discrimination and Further Lower the Church-State Wall of Separation

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There was a misprint in the original version of this newsletter – we apologize for the error.

It takes only a quick glance at its website to reveal that LGBTQ students, staff and families are not welcome at Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana.

“We believe that God wonderfully and immutably creates each person as male or female, and that these two distinct, complementary sexes together reflect the image and nature of God,” the school’s Statement of Faith reads. “We believe that God created marriage to be exclusively the union of one man and one woman, and that intimate sexual activity is to occur exclusively within that union.”

Yet in all likelihood, donors to student “scholarship organizations” that issue vouchers to support this school and others will soon be eligible for 100% state tax credits, even though Montana’s constitution clearly prohibits the direct or indirect use of public funds for religious school tuition. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court is predicted to issue a strongly pro-voucher ruling when it issues its decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue,where oral arguments in the case were heard last week.

Conservative justices, who comprise a 5-4 majority of the Court, have signaled in this and other recent cases that they have little use for the “wall of separation” between church and state. Instead, they are troubled by religious institutions being denied equal access to government benefits (such as vouchers), which they see as a violation of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.

Depending on the reasoning used by the Court in deciding the Espinoza case, a wide variety of state programs, including many related to education and other social services, may be transformed. Governments may be required to provide taxpayer funding to religious institutions that are not subject to anti-discrimination laws and other rules designed to protect vulnerable populations.

Currently, in 17 states where legal barriers have been cleared, a billion dollars per year is being diverted into private schools—the vast majority of which are religious. Like Stillwater, the school at the center of the Montana case, many of these religious academies openly discriminate against LGBTQ families.

“What we define as discriminatory applies differently in public and private spaces,” NEPC Fellow Julie Mead told The (Wisconsin) Daily Cardinalthis past fall. “The voucher language itself, about what schools have to permit and what they don’t have to permit, may make it possible to exclude LGBTQ kids or even straight kids whose parents are LGBTQ,” said Mead, a professor at UW Madison. “And because they have broken no law, they have not discriminated.”

Schools that receive vouchers may also be permitted to discriminate against students with disabilities. For instance, Trinity Christian Academy in Deltona, Florida, which received more than $1.5 million in vouchers last year, does not accept students with a wide variety of disabilities, including students who are not ambulatory, students with emotional disorders, and students with below-average intelligence.

Although the Montana case will almost certainly be decided in a way that promotes voucher expansion, given the Court’s majority of far-right Justices, NEPC Director and CU Boulder Professor Kevin Welner expects even more far-reaching effects. In an interview last week with Time, he said:

To the extent that we are shifting further and further away from where we were a half century ago and creating greater entanglements between states and state funding and religious institutions, that will have implications down the line, both about where our tax money goes and about public influence on private religious institutions.

Similarly, NEPC Fellow and University of Connecticut Professor Preston Green told the education news outlet Chalkbeat, “This case could gradually erode the grounding for keeping public funds specifically and totally for just public education. Even if this doesn’t happen, you could have language that could move us even more in that direction.”

“If it’s unconstitutional to exclude private religious schools from a program that provides aid for public schools, it’s hard to see where the line is drawn and where the neutrality principle ends,” Welner told the New York Times. “It’s a fascinating Pandora’s box they could open.”

As a result, some of the nation’s most vulnerable families and children may face a new wave of discrimination on a variety of different fronts. Come June, we’ll see how far the Court wants to push this new frontier.

This newsletter is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice: http://www.greatlakescenter.org

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: http://nepc.colorado.edu

Espinoza v. Montana could turn out to be the pivotal case in the battle over public funding of religious education. Will the Supreme Court rule narrowly or broadly? Will their decision defund public schools so that religious schools may be funded by the state?

The oral arguments were conducted yesterday. Randi Weingarten, who is a lawyer, released this statement:

For Immediate Release
January 22, 2020

Contact:

AFTSCOTUS@skdknick.com

AFT’s Weingarten Reacts to Oral Arguments in Espinoza v. Montana

Supreme Court Could Unleash Earthquake Threatening Public Education and Religious Liberty

 

WASHINGTON—Following today’s Supreme Court oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten issued the following statement:
“Today’s argument revealed a closely divided court that appeared skeptical of the most far-reaching and dangerous theories advanced by the petitioners.
“Thankfully, several justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, questioned the petitioners’ standing and asked hard questions of the right-wing Institute for Justice, which is trying to advance a contradictory and truly radical legal theory that would undermine public financing of public education in 38 states.
“Make no mistake, if a majority of the justices side with the petitioners, the Supreme Court will be responsible for unleashing a virtual earthquake in this country that threatens both religious liberty and public education. It would turn more than two centuries of American history and our understanding of the Constitution and religious liberty on their head, and mandate public taxpayer support for religious schools.   
“We know that in previous cases, Justice Roberts did not embrace this kind of radical rewrite of the Constitution. But the right wing has been stealthy in how it has operated, knowing the court is acutely aware of public opinion.
“This case is being spearheaded by the right-wing IFJ, which has collected tens of millions of dollars from the Waltons, the DeVoses, Charles Koch and other wealthy donors to attack public education. They are bankrolling this effort as a backdoor attempt to get the court to impose Betsy DeVos’ failed agenda of private school vouchers nationwide. It is no coincidence that DeVos was at the court in person today to hear oral arguments.
“As a person of faith, I’m deeply worried about the impact this case could have. Our freedom to practice our religion comes from free exercise clause and the separation of church and state. The framers never intended to require public funding of religious institutions or schools. In fact, that’s exactly what the free exercise clause and the separation of church and state were meant to prevent. And as a teacher and a believer in public education, I am deeply worried about the effects of this case on the financing of our public schools, which are attended by 90 percent of our children.
“Teachers, students, parents, school staff, and all allies who believe in public education understand the stakes. Whatever the court decides, we will continue our fight to oppose this blatant attack on our nation’s very foundations.”

 

Bill Phillis writes here about State Senator Matt Huffman, who is leading the fight to expand vouchers in Ohio. Phillis contrasts Huffman’s view with the state constitution. The Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana today, where plaintiffs seek to strike down all prohibitions by states of funding religious schools. Such a decision, encouraged by the Trump administration,  would validate Huffman’s assertion.

Bill Phillis writes:

Senator Matt Huffman: “shall be the duty of the General Assembly to fund the means of religious education”
 
Senator Matt Huffman, on Karen Kasler’s January 17, 2020 State of Ohio show (about 5 minutes into the show), said it is the constitutional duty of the General Assembly to fund the means of religious education. WOW. This is a brand new interpretation of the state’s constitutional responsibility.
What does the Constitution require of the state regarding the funding of education? Constitutional provisions relevant to the public common school system and education in general are reproduced below.
 
Article VI Section 1
Funds for Religious and Educational Purposes
The principal of all funds, arising from the sale, or other disposition of lands, or other property, granted or entrusted to this state for educational and religious purposes, shall be used or disposed of in such manner as the General Assembly shall prescribe by law.
(1851, am. 1968)
Article VI Section 2
School Funds
The General Assembly shall make such provisions, by taxation, or otherwise, as, with the income arising from the school trust fund, will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state; but no religious or other sect, or sects, shall ever have any exclusive right to, or control of, any part of the school funds of this state.
Article VI Section 3
Public School System, Boards of Education
Provision shall be made by law for the organization, administration and control of the public school system of the state supported by public funds: provided, that each school district embraced wholly or in part within any city shall have the power by referendum vote to determine for itself the number of members and the organization of the district board of education, and provision shall be made by law for the exercise of this power by such school districts.
Article VI Section 4
State Board of Education
There shall be a state board of education which shall be selected in such manner and for such terms as shall be provided by law. There shall be a superintendent of public instruction, who shall be appointed by the state board of education. The respective powers and duties of the board and of the superintendent shall be prescribed by law.
(1912, am. 1953)
Article I Section 7
Rights of Conscience; Education; the Necessity of Religion and Knowledge
All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience. No person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or maintain any form of worship, against his consent; and no preference shall be given, by law, to any religious society; nor shall any interference with the rights of conscience be permitted. No religious test shall be required, as a qualification for office, nor shall any person be incompetent to be a witness on account of his religious belief; but nothing herein shall be construed to dispense with oaths and affirmations. Religion, morality, and knowledge, however, being essential to good government, it shall be the duty of the General Assembly to pass suitable laws, to protect every religious denomination in the peaceable enjoyment of its own mode of public worship, and to encourage schools and the means of instruction.
Phillis comments:
What do these provisions mean?
·        The state has the responsibility to fund a thorough and efficient system of common schools (Article VI section 2)
·        The state has the duty of providing for the organization, administration and control of the public school system supported by public funds (Article VI section 3)
·        Article VI sections 2 and 3 require the state to maintain and fund the public common school system.
·        The state has the duty to protect all religious groups in the exercise of public worship (Article I section 7)
·        The state has no right to compel any person to support any place of worship (use of tax funds to support religious institutions is contrary to the intent of Article I section 7
·        The state has the duty to encourage school and the means of instruction (Article I section 7)
·        The state has the duty to “use or dispose of funds” derived from the sale of lands or other property granted or entrusted to the state for education and religious purposes (Article VI section 1). Essentially funds are available pursuant to Article VI section 1.
Phillis asks:
Where in the Constitution is there authority for the state to support private religious schools, much less the duty to do so?

Tomorrow, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in a crucial case called Espinoza v. Montana.

The goal of the Espinoza plaintiffs is to strike down state laws that prohibit public funding for religious schools.

This is a case that could not only erase the line between church and state but could actually compel states to fund religious schools. It would require states to fund religious schools of every kind, and no one knows who will determine what is a legitimate religious school. It would divert funding from public schools to support students enrolled in religious schools, now and in the future.

The plaintiffs are represented by the libertarian Institute for Justice. Its efforts on behalf of school choice have been funded over the years by anti-public school activists like the Walton Family Foundation (which has launched one of every four charter schools in the U.S.), the Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee (which fought in court to establish vouchers in that city), the DeVos family, and the Koch Foundation.

Twenty or thirty or forty years ago, the Supreme Court would have dismissed this case out of hand. In the past, the Court ruled that states should pay for ancillary matters like transportation and textbooks in religious schools, but not tuition.

But the Supreme Court today has a 5-4 conservative majority. Many conservative justices in the past were moderates compared to those now on the court. The two justices appointed by Trump are religious extremists who can be counted on to rule in favor of access to public funding for religious groups as well as their “freedom” to discriminate against those groups who offend their religious beliefs.

For more about this case and its ties to the evangelical right and anti-union funders, read this article that appeared in In These Times. 

The Washington Post described the case:

KALISPELL, Mont. — It is a blessed time at Stillwater Christian School, where Scripture adorns the gymnasium wall, enrollment is climbing and Head of School Jeremy Marsh awaits the four new classrooms that will be built in the spring.

It is a place that embraces the beliefs that sinners avoid eternal condemnation only through Jesus Christ, that a marriage consists of one man and one woman and that “human life is of inestimable worth in all its dimensions . . . from conception through natural death.”

“The religious instruction isn’t just in little pockets of Bible class,” Marsh said. “It really comes out as we are learning in all classes.”
If a family craves Stillwater’s academic rigor but not its evangelism, Marsh said he will gently advise that “this might not be the place for them.”

Parents who believe religious schools such as Stillwater absolutely are the places for their children are at the center of what could be a landmark Supreme Court case testing the constitutionality of state laws that exclude religious organizations from government funding available to others. In this case, the issue rests on whether a scholarship fund supported by tax-deductible donations can help children attending the state’s private schools, most of which are religious.

Arguments are scheduled for Wednesday.

A decision in their favor would “remove a major barrier to educational opportunity for children nationwide,” plaintiffs said in their brief to the Supreme Court. It is part of a movement by school choice advocates such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to allow government support of students seeking what she recently called “faith-based education.”


Said Erica Smith, a lawyer representing the parents: “If we win this case, it will be the U.S. Supreme Court once again saying that school choice is fully constitutional and it’s a good thing and it’s something parents should have. And that will provide momentum to the entire country.”


Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said such a ruling would be a “virtual earthquake,” devastating to the way states fund public education.

And Montana told the court that, as in 37 other states, it is reasonable for its constitution to prohibit direct or indirect aid to religious organizations.
“

The No-Aid Clause does not prohibit any religious practice,” Montana said in its brief. “Nor does it authorize any discriminatory benefits program. It simply says that Montana will not financially aid religious schools.”


But Montana is being called before a Supreme Court increasingly skeptical of such stark lines between church and state. A majority of justices in 2017 said Missouri could not ban a church school from requesting a grant from a state program that rehabilitated playgrounds. They have since been joined by Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who has signaled other such restrictions deserve the court’s attention.


The Montana case is prompted by a 2015 decision by the state’s legislature to create a tax-credit program for those who wanted to donate to a scholarship fund. The program allowed dollar-for-dollar tax credits to those who donated up to $150 to an organization that provides aid to parents who want to send their children to private school.


About 70 percent of qualifying private schools in Montana are affiliated with a religion, so that meant at least some of the money would go there.
And that conflicts with a section of the state constitution that prohibits public funds for “any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”


Litigation followed, and the Montana Supreme Court ultimately struck down the program — for religious and nonreligious private schools — and said Montana’s provision did not violate religious protections in the U.S. Constitution.

The Montana Constitution that is now being challenged was adopted in 1972.

The amicus briefs supporting Montana and opposing public support for religious schools are attached here.

 

Trump has tried to divert attention from his impeachment and trial by revving up fears that “religious freedom” is under attack in the nation, and he alone will protect it.

This is complete nonsense, but helps to explain why he appointed two new Supreme Court justices who have a history of overturning any efforts to separate church and state or to protect the secular nature of state action. Trump judges can be counted on to allow plaintiffs to discriminate against anyone who offends their religious beliefs. A pending decision by the High Court in the Espinoza case from Montana threatens to abolish state laws that prohibit public funding of religious schools.

Trump held a meeting in the Oval Office with representatives of religious groups who want official endorsement of prayer in the schools, and Trump assured them, as Valerie Strauss wrote in The Answer Sheet, that there is “a growing totalitarian impulse on the far left that seeks to punish, restrict and even prohibit religious expression” and said the steps his administration was taking “to protect the First Amendment right to pray in public schools” were “historic.” Actually, students and anybody else in a public school already have the right to pray in public schools, and his administration’s new guidance changes little from that of earlier administrations.

Valerie Strauss included the transcript of his inflammatory and false statements in her post.

Peter Greene wrote that Trump had solved a problem that literally did not exist, since students already have the right to pray in school if they wish. 

Greene finds it amusing that Trump has inserted himself into two issues–religion and education–in which he literally has no interest at all.

The editorial board of the Los Angeles Times notes that Trump has appealed to evangelicals’ fear that the secular state is persecuting them. It is a divisive and false message.

In an editorial published on January 17, the Times wrote:

Not for the first time, President Trump is trying to score political points with his evangelical supporters by unveiling a “religious freedom” initiative that suggests, cynically, that Christianity in America is under sustained attack and that the federal government must come to its rescue. Needless to say, that is not the case.

The initiative unveiled on Thursday is best seen not as a considered response to a real problem but as a political statement in which the president is aligning himself with Christian conservatives whose support could be essential to his 2020 reelection. Its centerpiece is a “guidance” letter from the Department of Education reminding public schools that they must certify that they allow students to engage in “constitutionally protected prayer.” That’s a reference to voluntary prayer, not the official prayers that were outlawed by the Supreme Court in the 1960s.

In other words, the heart of this initiative is a reaffirmation of existing law. Trump isn’t the first president to put schools on notice that they must respect religious expression by their students. Substantially similar guidance was issued by the Clinton administration in 1995. But Trump is a past master of repackaging existing law involving religious freedom to make it appear that he is delivering to his religious supporters.

Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, took issue with Trump’s efforts to politicize religious issues.

When President Donald Trump leaked, at a rally for evangelical supporters in Florida on Jan. 3, that his administration would issue guidance about prayer in public schools, he started a mini-firestorm, and not just among the fired-up crowd.

When the guidance was released on Thursday (Jan. 16), however, it turned out to be hardly worth the excitement. According to long-settled legal and constitutional protections for religious expression in the public schools, public school students are free to pray, wear religious clothing and accessories and talk about their beliefs. Religious groups can meet on school grounds, and teachers can teach about religion as an academic subject. Religious liberty, in short, is already a treasured value in our nation’s public schools.

So why are the president and White House staffers making inflammatory and misleading statements, claiming our constitutional rights are under attack?

It could be that the administration simply wanted to remind public schools of their constitutional duties. But some comments officials made before and in their announcement of the guidance vastly overstated the supposed problem and echoed the claims of Christian nationalism, a dangerous movement that harms both Christianity and the United States by implying that to be a good American, one must be Christian…

For decades, public schools across the nation have modeled how religiously diverse populations can build relationships of trust and care, respecting the unique role that religion plays in people’s lives. Like our neighbors of all faiths, we are empowered by the First Amendment to live our beliefs in the public square, which includes the public school….

The law cannot anticipate the nuances of every situation that might arise at a given school, and sometimes a misunderstanding or misrepresented incident spurs a call to “bring back prayer” to our schools. In most cases, these misunderstandings simply create an opportunity to reaffirm commonsense guidance and constitutional principles that support voluntary, student-led religious exercise.

But using any incident to institute state-sanctioned prayer, written and delivered by school officials, should be deeply concerning for all Christians. For a Baptist, as I am, voluntary prayer is an important part of my religious practice, and it has been since I was a student in Texas public schools. Why should government schools have a say in how and whether our children pray?

Importantly, ensuring faith freedom for all isn’t only an issue of concern for Christians. If Christian nationalists were able to realize their goal and prioritize Christianity over other traditions in public schools, it is religious minorities who will suffer the most. In our religiously diverse society, why should our schools favor Baptists over Buddhists, Anglicans over atheists, or Methodists over Muslims.

Instead of demanding that a distorted vision of state-sanctioned Christianity be upheld by public schools, Trump should celebrate what public schools already are: a place where religious liberty ensures that Americans can work and learn together across lines of religious difference.

To guarantee religious freedom for students of all faiths and nonreligious students, we must embrace our nation’s constitutional vision that has served us well and push back against the dangerous influence of Christian nationalism.

 

 

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case called Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that will determine whether the United States–or any state–may still respect a separation of church and state.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s choice of two far-right Justices to the Supreme Court, this case might well be decided in a way that removes all prohibitions on the use of public funds for religious schools.

The facts of the case are these: Like many states, Montana’s state constitution forbids the funding of religious schools. The Montana legislature passed a tax credit program that funds vouchers for religious schools. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the law violated the state constitution. Now, the case is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many states have such prohibitions (and in some of them, like Indiana and Florida, the state courts decided to ignore the explicit language of the state constitution and allow vouchers for religious schools on the claim that the money goes to the family not the religious school that actually gets the public money). The typical attack on state bans on funding religious schools is that such prohibitions are “Blaine amendments,” adopted in the late 19th century at the height of anti-Catholic bigotry; because they were passed in a spirit of bigotry, the argument goes, they should be struck down.

In Montana, the prohibition on funding religious schools is not a Blaine amendment. It was the product of a Montana state constitutional convention in 1972.

Advocates of vouchers will nonetheless make the same argument, ignoring the facts.

Will the Supreme Court care? Or will it placate demands for religious “freedom” by preventing states from keeping public money only in public schools?

If the Espinoza case is decided against Montana, we can anticipate public funding of evangelical Christian schools, Catholic schools, Yeshivas, and Madrassas, as well as the schools of every imaginable sect and religious group.

Somehow this does not seem to be what the Founders had in mind when they created this nation more than 200 years ago. They were not anti-religion, but they did not want religious tests for office or any religious establishment of religion with public funds.

Here is an amicus brief in the Espinoza case written by “Public Funds Public Schools,” a collaboration of legal organizations that support civil rights and civil liberties, the Education Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the SPLC Action Fund, and Munger, Tolles, and Olson LLP.

The Education Law Center created this graphic and explanatory information about the battle to keep public funds in public schools. The graphic shows the state of the voucher movement and identifies which states have advanced or repelled efforts to privatize public funding to religious and private schools via vouchers. It is heartening to see the number of states that rejected voucher legislation, especially when such legislation was defeated by a coalition of rural Republican legislators and urban Democratic legislators, as was the case in Texas and Arkansas. Thanks to all those who are joining forces to keep public funds in public schools.

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PRIVATE SCHOOL VOUCHERS: ANALYSIS OF 2019 STATE LEGISLATIVE SESSIONS
For a larger version and a text description of this map with a list of the states in each category, click ​here​.
In anticipation of states’ 2020 legislative sessions, this is the first in a series about the fate of private school voucher proposals during 2019 sessions.
Introduction
Despite the continued promotion of school privatization by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, as well as support from a number of governors, legislatures, and well-funded advocacy organizations across the country, only two states enacted new private school voucher programs during their 2019 legislative sessions. Although some states expanded existing voucher programs, most passed no voucher legislation at all, and the majority of those that did made small-scale changes.
2019 Legislative Session Highlights:
  • Bipartisan majorities in Georgia, Kentucky, and West Virginia rejected voucher proposals supported by those states’ newly elected governors.
  • Although 22 states have full Republican control, only Florida and Tennessee were able to pass legislation creating new voucher programs in votes largely along party lines.
  • In Nevada, just a few years after the nation’s most expansive Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher law was passed, a new governor signed a bill repealing the program, which had never been implemented.
2019 Legislative Session Lowlights:
  • Tennessee passed a new private school voucher program, though it is limited to two counties.
  • Florida added yet another voucher program to the state’s existing voucher system.
  • Other states increased funding for their previously enacted programs, including Indiana and Iowa.
State Actions in Brief:
Arkansas
For the second consecutive legislative session, rural Republican lawmakers teamed with Democrats in a bipartisan effort to defeat legislation that would have created new school voucher programs. Proposals for a tax credit voucher and a traditional voucher were defeated. Although eligibility for the state’s existing ESA vouchers was modestly expanded, a bill passed requiring a biennial study that will provide lawmakers with important information to analyze how public funds are being spent in that program.
Arizona
Months after voters overwhelmingly rejected the 2017 expansion of the state’s ESA voucher program, legislators introduced a number of bills to again expand the program. Two of these bills passed out of relevant committees but were not taken up by the House or Senate. The remaining expansion bills did not advance, and a bill that slows the growth of tax credit vouchers passed into law.
Diverting public money to private education starves public schools of vital resources and does not lead to improved academic outcomes. For information about various types of private school voucher programs, visit the Public Funds Public Schools website. The PFPS website also highlights a wide range of research showing that private school voucher programs are an ineffective and harmful use of public funds.
Florida
Governor Ron DeSantis (R) signed Florida’s latest private school voucher plan, the “Family Empowerment Scholarship Program,” into law. This program will divert an estimated $130 million to private schools over the authorized period and will make vouchers available to middle class families earning up to $80,000 a year.
Georgia
Despite a new Republican governor who supports private school vouchers, voucher legislation failed in the State Senate. Six of the 13 Republican senators who represent rural areas of the state voted against the bill.
Indiana
Governor Eric Holcomb (R) signed legislation to increase funding for Indiana’s existing tax credit voucher program by almost 15% over the next two years. The legislation also increases the voucher amount for eligible families.
Iowa
Governor Kim Reynolds (R) signed legislation to increase the cap for Iowa’s existing tax credit voucher program by $2 million over the next two years. A bill to establish an ESA voucher was not considered by the full legislature.
Kentucky
Mobilization at the state capitol by educators standing up for public schools and several days of school sickout closures led to the defeat of legislation to create a tax credit voucher program. The Republican majority did not bring the bill up for a vote.
Louisiana
In Louisiana, a bill creating a “reading voucher” for public school students to use for private tutoring and other private uses passed the House but did not make it out of the Senate Finance Committee.
Mississippi
A bill to expand the state’s limited ESA voucher program was not voted on in the Republican-led House Education Committee. However, as the session was ending, the Lieutenant Governor included $2 million in new ESA funding in a bill to fund state construction projects.
Missouri
Bills to create a tax-credit-funded ESA voucher program were not acted upon before the legislative deadline.
Nevada
Governor Steve Sisolak (D) signed a bill formally repealing the state’s ESA voucher program first passed in 2015, and subsequently struck down by the Nevada Supreme Court. Additionally, a number of bills to create ESA vouchers for students deemed “victims of bullying” failed to advance in the legislature.
North Dakota
A bill that would have authorized a “school choice” study, including of ESA vouchers, passed in the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate.
Pennsylvania
Governor Tom Wolf (D) vetoed a major expansion of the state’s tax credit voucher program passed by the Republican-led legislature. The bill would have nearly doubled the amount that could be diverted to the program, included automatic annual expansions, and significantly raised the income limit for participating families.
South Carolina
Two bills were introduced in the legislature to establish an ESA voucher for students with disabilities. Both were referred to their chamber’s education committee, with no action taken by the legislature.
Tennessee
Governor Bill Lee (R) signed a law to establish an ESA voucher program. Concessions were made to rural Republican legislators in order to pass the bill, including limiting the program to the state’s two largest school districts and capping it at 15,000 students per year.
Texas
State leadership, including Republican legislators and the governor, did not include vouchers among their education priorities in 2019. In response to electoral losses in the suburbs and a lack of support for vouchers, legislative leaders emphasized improving the state’s public school financing system instead.
West Virginia
After a nine-day teachers’ strike in 2018, educators went on strike again, closing all but one of the state’s 55 county public school districts, to protest bills to allow charter schools and to create an ESA voucher program. The voucher bill did not pass during the regular session. Vouchers were again considered, but the program did not pass, during a special session on education legislation.
Resources
Acknowledgements
Many thanks to Jason Unger for compiling the research and drafting this series on 2019 legislative sessions.
Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
Education Law Center
973-624-1815, ext. 24

New York City investigators began examining the city’s yeshivas in 2015 in response to complaints from graduates of the Yeshivas that they had not received an education that met state requirements. It is 2019 and there is still no report. Leonie Haimson writes about the growing suspicion that the de Blasio administration sat on the investigation in order to win key votes from Orthodox Jews and their allies in the Legislature on the renewal of mayoral control.

The report was finally released on December 19, four years after it was initiated.

Only two of the 28 ultra-orthodox yeshivas visited by the city Education Department over the past three years are providing an education that meets state legal standards, according to a long-awaited report released Thursday.

Schools examined by the city ran the gamut from teaching a full range of subjects in English, to offering no math or English courses, and providing students with no access to textbooks written in English. Of almost 140 elementary and middle school classes officials attended, about a third were taught exclusively in Yiddish, with the remainder taught in a mix of English and Yiddish.

The DOE classified 8 of the 28 schools as well on their way to meeting the state standard of providing an education “substantially equivalent” to the one offered in public schools. Another 12 met parts of the criteria, and five schools had almost no overlap with the requirements.

Naftuli Moster, the executive director of YAFFED, a group dedicated to reforming ultra-orthodox yeshiva education, said the report “reaffirms what we already know: That tens of thousands of children in New York City, including those in nearly 40 Yeshivas the city investigated and those which the city failed to monitor for decades, are being denied a basic education as required by law.”

Here is another report, this one in The Forward, a Jewish-oriented newspaper. 

The mixture of religion and the state is always volatile.

The Yeshiva graduates who demanded the investigation said they had not learned secular subjects, they had learned most of the curriculum in Hebrew, and they were ill-equipped to function in contemporary society.

Why did it take four years to investigate 28 schools?

The NYC publication Gothamist reported:

Probe Finds De Blasio Administration Stalled Report on Academic Standards at Yeshivas

The de Blasio administration engaged in political maneuvering to stall the release of a report on education standards in Hasidic yeshivas, according to city investigators. A joint report from the Department of Investigations and the Special Commissioner of Investigation for city schools released Wednesday found representatives of the mayor and state legislators took part in “political horse trading” in 2017 as part of a ploy to delay an interim Department of Education report on whether the yeshivas were proving education on par with the city’s public schools.

The effort was part of a plan to secure support for extending mayoral control for city schools, investigators found, which was approved by the legislature in 2017. But investigators determined the agreement “had no substantial effect on the inquiry’s conclusion or the progress of the inquiry,” which was delayed by several other factors, according to a statement from the Department of Investigations, including a generally accommodative stance by the DOE to the yeshivas it was attempting to investigate.

Investigators did not determine whether the mayor personally approved the delay of the DOE report, but the statement noted, “the totality of evidence did indicate the Mayor was aware that the offer to delay had been made.” The report concluded that no laws were violated. The final report from the DOE has still not been released, though de Blasio administration officials indicated it would be coming soon, years after it was promised.

In a statement following the revelations Wednesday, Naftuli Moster, executive director of YAFFED, an educational advocacy group operating in Orthodox Jewish communities, said, “What a disgrace. The DOI/SCI investigation shows the City is willing to trade away the education of tens of thousands of students for power and political influence. These findings also raise concerns as to whether the City will provide an accurate assessment of what is happening inside Yeshiva schools when it finally releases its report.”
*****

Haimson writes:

It is hard to know which is more toxic – the system of autocratic mayoral control which I and others critiqued at Assembly hearings this week;  or the damaging political deals the Mayor has made to keep it – which include not just a delay in issuing a report on the Yeshivas in 2017,  but also that same year, his agreement to an increase in the number of NYC charter schools. 

Before that, as part of the deal to extend mayoral control in 2014 , de Blasio agreed to either co-locate charter schools in public school buildings or help pay for rent in private buildings – a legal obligation which no other district in the state or the nation has been saddled with, and that the DOE is now spending more than $100M per year on.

A question which the DOE/SCI statement does not answer is why the DOE inquiry into the Yeshivas was still in its early stages in June 2017 – given that the initial complaint was made in the July 2015.  See Yaffed’s timeline here.

Another question is what is now holding up the release of the DOE’s final report, given that that the DOE visits to Yeshivas concluded last spring and that  “Although the DOE has now visited all 28 yeshivas [originally named in the complaint that are still open], more than four years after the initial complaints, the DOE’s Inquirycontinues.”

If the visits ended last spring, why does the DOE Inquiry continue and why has no report has yet been issued?  No explanation is provided.

All this makes one suspect that the political influence of the ultra-Orthodox community with the Mayor and City Hall continues to hamper DOE’s actions and reporting on this issue.

If the United States Supreme Court rules against state prohibitions on vouchers for religious schools in the coming term, the public will fund many such schools, including those governed by all religious groups that will step forward to claim their share of the public purse.

If the Supreme Court decides that the state must pay for religious schools, will the state also have the power to regulate those schools and require that they teach subjects in English and meet the same academic standards as other publicly-funded schools?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today is a day when we pause and give thanks to whatever deity we worship (or not) for the blessings we enjoy: our freedom, our family, our friends, and our good fortune to live in a democracy where we are all responsible for making it better for our brothers and sisters.

I want to share with you a profound speech delivered by our good friend Rev. Dr. Charles Foster Johnson about religious liberty and the public schools and the future of our democracy.

Charlie Johnson is the founder and leader of Pastors for Texas Children. PTC has led the fight against vouchers in Texas and has helped like-minded religious leaders in other states form their own organizations to support religious liberty and public schools. I never expected, at this late chapter in my life, to discover that I have a dear friend who is a Baptist minister in my home state of Texas. I admire his courage, his intellect, and his passion for the common good. Needless to say, he is on the honor roll of this blog, and I name him as a hero of the Resistance in my forthcoming book Slaying Goliath. I can’t think of a better way for you to spend a few free minutes on this day than to read this wonderful speech.

This is the only post you will receive today. Enjoy the day. Read this speech.

 

J.M. Dawson Lecture on Religious Liberty

“Religious Liberty, the Public School, and the Soul of America”

Baylor University

October 7, 2019

 

     I am deeply honored to deliver the J.M. Dawson Lecture on the Separation of Church and State, and I am humbled to offer a few remarks in the name and legacy of this remarkable Baptist leader and great American on the bedrock principle of religious liberty and its practical corollary, the separation of the church and the state in public affairs.

 

     When I spoke recently with my oldest granddaughter Corley, who is age 10, she asked me what I was doing. I told her I was preparing a sermon for my friends at Baylor University on “Religious Liberty, the Public School, and the Soul of America.” She said, “Papa Charlie, you always use the biggest words… what does all that mean?”

 

     I learned a long time ago that if the preacher can’t explain a concept to a child, then he or she doesn’t quite get it either. So, I drew a breath and said something like this, “Sweetie, God made us free people. No one can make you love God. No one can prevent you from loving God. It is our choice. All faith in God is voluntary. It is your decision. No one can make that decision for you. Not your parents, not your friends, not the president or the police or the law or the government. Only you.”

 

     Then this granddaughter of two Baptist preachers on her mama and her daddy’s side (she doesn’t have a chance) said, “I know, Papa Charlie! We talked about that at church. And, we talked about that at school too.”

 

Religious Liberty

 

     Throughout our lives, we have had a sustained theological critique of the Enlightenment and its emphasis on the individual. This project of correction, as I understand it, notes that the philosophical framework through which the modern sensibility has been shaped places undue importance on the autonomy of the individual and gives inadequate attention to the influence of community. There has been something of a robust debate about this dialectic between the individual and the community, about the historically baptist and catholic understandings of authority and epistemology, and the cultural, moral, and theological implications of these respective worldviews. This university has been a key participant in this debate. Some of you here today have contributed significantly to it.

 

     It certainly makes sense to me. As a pastor for over 40 years, I have abundantly observed folks who believe all reality begins and ends with themselves, and who exercise little submission to anyone or anything but themselves. We have this psychological and spiritual dysfunction on vivid display in our highest leaders today. We have certainly paid a high price for this narcissism. We like the immortal figure of Greek mythology, fixate on ourselves, and die in the process.

 

     But, we do not have to fall for the myth of autonomous individualism to affirm the irreducible and inviolate freedom of the human conscience. In this day of mass society, where corporate conglomerates monitor our every thought, news networks disseminate state propaganda, media machines determine our daily consumption, and pastors become mouthpieces for Caesar, that we need a recovery of individual freedom. Isn’t it the day and time for us to reaffirm the power and freedom of the individual, and to call for a new assertion of individual rights and responsibilities, and to inculcate all over again in our students and congregants an individual and personal decision-making power?

 

     Forgive the patriarchal references, but I remember Will Campbell saying at Mississippi College in 1978 something to this effect: “I am less free than my daddy, my daddy was less free than my granddaddy, and my granddaddy was less free than my great-granddaddy.” I had no clue then what on earth he meant by such a cryptic remark. But I do now. And so do you.

 

     We today are like the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s famous story who has Christ arrested for cursing humanity with freedom. The Inquisitor concluded that Christ made a strategic error in not turning stones to bread, not casting himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, not ruling over the kingdoms of this world, for these things would have sealed his leadership and people would have followed him. But instead, Christ remained free, and gave us the burden of freedom. The Grand Inquisitor says, “anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take his freedom away from him.” No kidding. We see it every day.

 

     God has created human freedom as a reflection of God’s own freedom, God’s own non-contingency, as the theologians would put it. The individual liberty accorded every person is a work of God in Creation, and an integral feature of human worth and dignity.

 

      A core component of this freedom is at work in the realm of religion. Religious liberty and is the right and choice of the human—the “inalienable” right, as Jefferson immortally put it—to worship God according to the compulsion of his or her own individual conscience, or not to worship God at all.

 

     To say the term “religious freedom” is to speak a paradox of immense power and implication. The very impulse of religion is submission to a power outside oneself, to cast oneself in categorical terms upon God in a posture of what Schleiermacher called “absolute dependence.” The project of any religious concern is the relinquishment of one’s own autonomy to the hegemony of God.  

  

     In a sinful world, full of idols that vie for our submission, the individual made in the image of God is the only entity competent to make this decision. Christ quoted the Psalmist in his reply to Satan in the temptation in the wilderness, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” This is the great baptist understanding. There is no other legitimate and competent authority other than the individual to make a religious decision. This is what we mean when we speak of “soul competency,” as E.Y. Mullins put it:

     “Religious liberty excludes the imposition of religious creeds by ecclesiastical authority. Confessions of faith by individuals or groups of men [and woman], voluntarily framed and set forth as containing the essentials of what men [or women] believe to be the Gospel are all right. They are merely one way of witnessing to the truth. But when they are laid upon men’s [or women’s] consciences by ecclesiastical command, or by a form of human authority, they become a shadow between the soul and God, an intolerable yoke, impertinence, and a tyranny.” (“The Baptist Conception of Religious Liberty,” 1923)

     Therefore, all religious activity must be strictly voluntary on the part of the individual. There can be no coercion in these matters, and certainly no collusion with the state in them. In fact, no institution whether the church or the state, possesses any competency to make any religious decision on behalf of an individual. Virginia baptist preacher John Leland put it this way:

 

“Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either on God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse, or loss of property, from his religious opinions.”

 

     The corollary to this God-given religious liberty is the principle of the strict separation of the church from the state. In our work in Pastors for Texas Children, we refer to religious liberty as a gift from God to all people, and note that James Madison did not make it up. God did. Madison took an eternal spiritual truth that God authored and wrote it down in an extraordinary sentence that comprises the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

 

     Leland’s influence over James Madison is well-known by everyone in this room today. When Madison learned that Leland might challenge him for his seat in the House of Representatives, Madison forged a compromise with Leland that resulted in the popular baptist preacher standing down from his electoral challenge in exchange for Madison’s championing of the principle of church/state separation. And the rest, as we say, is history.

 

     It is not an overstatement to say that religious liberty is the principle upon which our nation was founded. A free church in a free state. And long before America came along the first pastor of the church told his congregation at Galatia, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand fast, therefore, and do not submit to a yoke of slavery.”

 

     Corley, my ten year old granddaughter, knows this. She learned it at church. And she learned it at school.

 

 

The Public School

 

     The public school is the building block of American democracy. It is the cornerstone of our national life. It was determined at the outset of our Republic that the American experiment might have a chance of succeeding if we educated all our children in a public trust—not just those fortunate enough by reason of their class and station to receive an education.

 

     In 1785 John Adams said, 

 

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

 

Clearly, this founding father of our Republic saw public education as central to our social contract and fundamental to the provision of the common good.

 

     Universal education is a moral mandate rooted in the faith tradition. In the creation story itself, God brought all of creation to the human to see what the human would name it. This “naming” impulse is education. It is central to the first charge God gives to the human, “to be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth, and subdue it.”   

  

     The first schools in America were founded by faith communities.  Shortly thereafter, at the dawn of our Republic, people of faith realized that an educated populace was essential for the preservation of democracy and self-governance.  Therefore, public education for all children in America was birthed out of a moral sensibility. That conviction was encoded in constitutions of the respective states as our nation expanded westward. Virtually every state constitution has a mandate for public education.  Our own Texas State Constitution in Article 7, Section 1, says this: 

“A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”

     For these reasons of profound moral and religious motivation, public school educators often are faith leaders themselves. They serve as pastors, ministers, elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers, youth and children’s leaders, committee chairpersons, mission and music directors, accompanists, and many other ministry positions in the life of the church.

 

     It is axiomatic among congregational pastors that the persons we turn to for religious instruction of our children are our public school teachers. Furthermore, it is common for a local church pastor’s spouse to teach in the nearby public school.  This has been a time-honored clergy couple vocational package for decades.  Our sons and daughters are employed in the public schools as coaches, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodians.

 

     Public schools are filled with many people of faith. These teachers, principals, and school staff bow their heads in our houses of worship with us, serve and fellowship alongside us, and model their faith in schools and classrooms, following the spirit of 1 Peter 4:10, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

 

     This is why an affirmation of universal and public education can be found in the denominational documents of all faiths.  It is a universal human right accorded every child be virtue of being on God’s planet.

 

     Schools and churches remain inextricably bound together in every community. 90% of our children in our churches attend public schools. The rest attend all the other models of education, whether private, online, and home schools. We appropriately affirm all these models of education.  Indeed, our congregations are comprised of leaders in all these diverse school models.

 

     We see the local public school and its classroom as a center of God’s love.  Education is a gift from Almighty God accorded to every human being regardless of race, religion, economic status, and special need.  The public school, unlike the private school, receives and accepts every single child that shows up on its steps, and meets that child’s needs as sensitively and lovingly as possible. 

 

     Our loved ones and fellow church members do not leave God at the door of the school house as they go about their daily duties.  They carry the love and grace of God with them every hour of every day.  Indeed, they show love, unconditional acceptance, and physical assistance to children who have special needs, come from emotionally deprived circumstances, and suffer the ill-effects of crushing poverty. It’s what a teacher does.  It’s a calling before God.

 

     My own daughter-in-law, who is a public school educator, did not get the memo that God has been taken out of our schools.  She takes the longsuffering love that she showers on our grandchildren into the classroom with her, and pours it out on children from the community all day long. Corley is not the only recipient of it. All the children in her classroom receive it.

 

     Our neighborhood and community public schools are the primary vehicles for perpetuating civil society, promoting human equality, strengthening our economy, and ensuring continued democratic reform in our nation and world. 

 

     The public school is the proving ground for religious liberty and the principle of church/state separation. Here our children witness firsthand that their own religious experience is not given preference over anyone else’s. Here they see early on the tremendous power of voluntary and personal faith, that faith is something expressed and brokered by them—not by some official institutional leader. To use a familiar term, they discover their own individual priesthood.

 

     Public education advances moral and civic values through early investments to give every student a fair shot and the tools needed to pursue a more prosperous, self-sufficient future. These investments reap significant long-term economic dividends and savings generated from fewer societal problems, benefiting all of us.

 

     By investing in public education, we invest in the future of 50 million American schoolchildren. This basic investment is the key to a child’s future economic mobility, the financial stability of families, and our long-term economic prosperity. We know, because it is well-documented, the direct correlation between education achievement and economic viability.

 

     As we have noted, our spouses and church members routinely teach in our public schools. Often in our towns, the public school district is the chief employer and economic generator of our communities.  As goes the financial health of our public schools, goes the financial health of our churches.  The school is the center of vitality and meaningful, life-enriching activity for our people.  One only need look at the importance of Friday Night Football for folks to see this.

 

     It is the public schools that serve all children. Not just those of economic means, or whose parents are engaged, or who are from stable homes, or who perform well academically. But, all.

 

     Over 60 percent of Texas schoolchildren are economically disadvantaged. Public schools cannot be expected to overcome the challenges created by rising poverty, and especially when they are educating more students with less money. The last thing these poor neighborhoods need is to be stripped of their remaining vitality.  

 

     Texas ranks near the bottom in per-pupil spending nationwide. Bear with a brief history of Texas education policy. In 2011, devastating funding cuts forced school districts to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and reduce pre-kindergarten programs. In 2013, Texas legislators restored only a portion of the cuts — about 60 percent —leaving a gaping deficit in education funding. In 2015, schools also had to accommodate for student growth, totaling 300,000 more students than in 2011. In 2017, House Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock’s proposal to infuse $3 billion new dollars into the public education system was pulled from the floor by that good man because he didn’t have the votes to pass it. Only in this year’s session did we finally get $6.5 billion new dollars for our children’s public education—and only after Texas voters retired some key legislators who oppose public education in the 2018 elections.

 

     These are profound moral, Biblical, constitutional, and economic reasons for universal education paid for by the public. The case for quality public education is overwhelming.

 

     So, we wonder what the real agenda is in our legislative assault on public schools? We have witnessed firsthand the cruel attack on our public education system as a “monstrosity.” We are more than a little outraged to hear from some of our elected officials that our public schools are “Godless.”  We have heard with our own ears loose talk of our schools as “failed” and our teachers as “incompetent.” Then, when our own Texas legislature began churning out bills designed specifically to demoralize teachers—vouchers, unlimited charter school expansion, opportunity school districts, tuition tax credits, A-F school rating, parent trigger—our good faith pastoral nature to give benefit of the doubt began to cave to the unpleasant conclusion of something more insidious unfolding before our eyes:  the intentional dismantling of the Constitutionally mandated public trust of universal education.

 

     The privatization of the public trust of universal education is a thinly veiled disguise to turn the local public school into a profit center for the personal financial gain of a few. State legislatures all over our country are being pressured by rich interests to divert already stretched dollars from our public schools to fund private and charter schools.  We know that the private schools are not asking for this support; they do not want government interference and intrusion into their private assemblies. That is the reason they established the private school in the first place.

 

     We are deeply troubled by the government expansion and entitlement programs undergirding privatization policies.  Private school vouchers and so-called “school choice” initiatives are nothing but government giveaway programs with no accountability or oversight.  Absent are the myriad stewardship measures the public schools must submit to give account for how state dollars are being spent.  We hear about these overwrought accountability rules from our family and church members all the time.

 

     We decry the expansion of unlimited charter schools as a replacement for our traditional community and neighborhood public schools, the avalanche of burdensome assessment measures our teachers and students are subjected to, and the de-professionalization of teaching through low wages and bad conditions.

 

     We must prioritize the adequate funding of our institutions of public education for the benefit of all Texans. Up until the 86th Legislative session, the previous Texas legislatures have seen contentious fights over public education policy and the dramatic cuts to public school funding. This must stop now.

 

The Soul of America

 

     There are two competing visions for the soul of our nation: one weakens the public and one strengthens it. On one side, there is a drive to de-fund public education, de-professionalize teaching, misuse test scores to declare schools as failing, and institute paths to privatize schools in the name of school reform. These privatization schemes take the form of private school vouchers, for-profit virtual schools, and corporate chain charter schools that do not serve all students equally.

 

     The other vision is to provide adequate funding for all schools, implement high quality and full day pre-kindergarten instructional programs that start our youngest learners on their path to educational success, raise the bar with higher standards and more respect for the teaching profession, focus on a rich instructional program instead of a narrow overemphasis on testing, and engage community partners in support for neighborhood schools and the children and families they serve.

 

     Those advocating the privatization of public schools have attacked the public education system and falsely labeled neighborhood schools as failures. This arbitrary judgment has been exposed as a cynical strategy to divert public education monies for private purposes, and has brought advocates like Pastors for Children to the fight against privatization and in support of initiatives that tell the true story about the value of our public schools.

 

     The “choice” that corporate chain charters claim to offer parents and students is illusory. It is really these private operators who exercise their own freedom to choose which students they will recruit and retain and which students they will exclude or filter out. And the latter group disproportionately includes Hispanics, African-Americans, English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and students who are at risk because of disciplinary or academic difficulties.  These children are our neighbors too.

 

     The private school voucher, regardless of the euphemism by which it is falsely named, will not begin to cover the cost of a private education that even approximates the quality of the education that poor child receives in the traditional public school.  Quality private education costs far more than what the voucher covers.  Furthermore, there is no transportation allotment attached to the voucher. One surely notices that private schools are not located in poor neighborhoods.  How would the poor child get to the private school even with a voucher?

 

     As we have said, the poorest children among us attend public schools.  They are the places these children are taught, fed, affirmed, and loved.  62% of the 5.4 million schoolchildren in Texas attend public schools.  Private schools do not exist to care for poor children in this way, nor do they intend to accept the influx of poor children into their schools through vouchers. That is the very reason private schools are private in the first place.  It is as morally wrong for the State of Texas to divert already stretched public dollars for underwriting the religious mission of private church and parochial schools, as it is for the state to require intrusive accountability measures for the private schools that receive that public money. Let private schools remain private, public schools remain public.

 

     The chief objection we have to vouchers is the inherent religious liberty violations of them. The Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the State of Texas, Article 1, Section 6 and 7 states this:  “No man shall be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent. No money shall be appropriated, or drawn from the Treasury for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary; nor shall property belonging to the State be appropriated for any such purposes.”  Clearly, using tax dollars for religious private schools violates this principle. 

 

     Do Texas Christians really want their tax money to fund Muslim private schools?  By last count, we have eleven madrassas in the state of Texas.  Do Muslim folks want their money underwriting Baptist church schools? Do Texas Baptists really want their tax money to fund Roman Catholic schools that teach the infallibility of the Pope?  Do Texas Catholics really want their tax money funding Baptist schools that teach children the priesthood of all believers?

 

     Let us rededicate ourselves to these children in our public education system. Rather than again fixating on controversial, unproven policies that further impair our public schools, let us reclaim our collective will to pursue proposals that give our schools the support they need to prepare our children for the economy they will inherit, and create.

 

     Pastors for Children are mobilizing congregational leaders to do precisely this. We have three objectives in our work:  1) Get the congregation involved in assistance ministries in your local neighborhood school, always under the authority of the school principal and in deference to God’s gift of church/state separation; 2.) Get congregational leaders engaged in public education advocacy by bringing your influence to bear on state legislators who shape education policy for our children; and 3.) Engage in electoral races not to endorse candidates, but to endorse the justice provision of quality public education for all children.

 

     We are now in six states: Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida. We have held meetings and conversations with faith leaders in a dozen other states where we will soon plant our work.

 

     Let’s provide our children the education that our community provided us. Their future, and ours, depends on it. Let us rededicate ourselves to these children in our public education system. We have an absolute and total obligation to our children. Not just the few. Not just the privileged. Not just our own. All children. 

 

   The great equalizer in American life is the neighborhood public school. It is the laboratory for our democracy. It is the teller of our national history and story. It is the training ground for citizenship in this great land. It is the discovery zone where our children uncover their own God-given talent, realize their own significance, understand the power of their own individuality, and locate their own place within the larger world of their community. It is the social and communal context where the values of our faith are incarnated. It is the meeting place for the widening diversity of our American life. The public school is the shared space where we nurture civic virtue, cultivate mutual respect, practice tolerance across racial, class, gender, political, and religious lines, and preserve and protect God’s Common Good.