Universal public education is one of this country’s most successful taxpayer investments. A literate, educated citizenry provides a foundation element of a democracy. For over a century, public education has provided children with quality educations. In addition, public schools have constituted a melting pot of sort exposing young minds to diverse cultures and beliefs. In such schools, students have learned about the world in lessons largely uncontaminated by indoctrination in religious superstitions.
Given the Constitutional separation of church and state, taxpayer funds for education have never been distributed to sectarian schools. That is, until the Bush Administration. Now, under President Obama, these programs have accelerated, particular at the state level with federal (taxpayer) funding. It’s a national disgrace; if voters took the Constitution seriously, it would be stopped at the ballot box as well as in the courtrooms at every level of government.
School choice vouchers consist of federal dollars for private schools. The schools receiving these public monies are overwhelmingly religious schools that energetically promote their dogmas with relentless proselytizing.
Voucher funds to private (religious) schools hasten the decline of public schools. Less funds for public education basically eliminates the prospects for much needed, systemic quality improvements of public school personnel, physical plants and programming.
Unlike public schools, which are accountable to citizen school boards and other public supervision, religious-affiliated schools have little accountability to taxpayers. The school leadership in religious schools answers only to private boards. There is thus little or no accountability for the spending of taxpayer dollars.
Subsidies for religions are always intermixed with voucher funds for education. In one state, Georgia, the subsidy for religion is almost beyond the pale. The state’s so-called “tax credit scholarship” program allows families a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to a religious school. The donations are channeled to a “scholarship fund” in allowable amounts up to $2,500. Guess who gets the “scholarships?” Exactly - the parents who fund them. It’s a tax credit for religious education. This means, of course, that all Georgia taxpayers support religious indoctrination, wherever they want to or not. (See “Romney's divisive play for vouchers,” A Times Editorial - Tampa Bay Times, June 11, 2012.)
EXTENT OF VOUCHERS
Elsewhere in the country, Catholic schools are benefiting disproportionately from vouchers. These programs are in use in 10 states and Washington, D.C. There are voucher variations, from tax credit schemes such as Georgia’s to dollar grants for religious schools. Such funding has, in some locations, “saved” such institutions, particularly Catholic schools. Without this federal funding, many would have gone out of business. C’est dommage - what a lost opportunity for a modest advance of rationality.
The State of Indiana provides a case in point. Here the dramatic decline of Catholic schools was reversed by state funding. Since 2000, U.S. Catholic school enrollment had plummeted by 23%, and 1,900 schools closed, driven by demographic changes and fallout from priest sexual-abuse scandals. Now, for the first time in decades thanks to vouchers, Catholic education is showing signs of life. In a recent analysis of this trend, a Catholic education official was quoted as follows: "God has been good to us." (See: Stephanie Banchero, “Vouchers Breathe New Life Into Shrinking Catholic Schools,” Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2012.)
In fact, God did not have to do anything. Even if you assume there is a God, and that he, she or it intervenes in support of school funding in Indiana (not to mention extra points, jump shorts and the like), the job in Indiana was done by religious politicians. They are the ones who pushed through the voucher programs. Lest anyone think the religionists are promoting Catholic schools for educational advantages, the Wall Street Journal report put that canard to rest. Mark Gray, an official at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, put it thusly: “Growing parochial schools could also help the U.S. Catholic Church boost the percentage of Catholics who attend church.” The goal is to get more faithful back into the pews. Catholic schools are less focused on knowledge about this world, more about inculcating dogma they believe will lead to a happy place in the next.
At one publicly-funded Catholic school in Chicago, classrooms are adorned with religious symbols that integrate religion, patriotism and academics. For example, at St. Stans in Chicago, “a statue of the Virgin Mary gripping an American flag stands sentry in the corner of each classroom.” An outsider might wonder, “What exactly does that represent?” The mind boggles at the bizarre possibilities. Classrooms are decorated with religious symbology, including crucifixes, Ten Commandments and red heart-shaped "Jesus Loves Me" signs.
All students, Catholic or not, are subjected to a daily class of supernatural folklore about miracles, sacraments, Catholic morality (e.g., abstinence is the way and contraceptives are tools of Satan) and a whitewashed overview of the history of the Catholic Church (never mind those Crusades, Inquisitions or sex scandals). While only 87% of voucher students in the Chicago schools are Catholic (nationally, the percentage on non-Catholics is 17%), everyone must attend these 45-minute classes in addition to required Sunday Masses.
AN ATHEIST ALTERNATIVE
Atheist charters schools focused on science and reason would promote a secular understanding of the natural world. They would teach humanist values, promote environmental awareness and a global perspective. The curriculum would include the traditional skills of reading, writing, math, social studies and so on. However, learning would be made enjoyable, foods would be nutritious and there would be ample time for games, singing, arts and crafts and exercise. No time whatsoever would be wasted on superstition classes, mindless rituals and empty devotionals.
Unlike religious schools, the format of atheist charter schools would favor open discussions with questions taking precedence over absolutist answers supported by nothing more than alleged revelations and ancient myths. Children would learn the nature of secular humanism and the challenges of freethinking in a religious world. In atheist schools devoted to science and reason, children would be encouraged to ponder and talk about existential matters such as life and death, gods, religions and atheism, as well as nature, science and the cosmos.
While the simplest strategy during this time of forced taxpayer funding of Christian schools might seem to be legal challenges to vouchers and support for public education reforms, these worthy goals will take years of effort. Unless the drift of this country toward theocracy is arrested, public schools may never recover. In any event, a two-pronged approach is not out of the question: secularists can seek vouchers for their own atheist schools (open to all) of science and reason while seeking to have school vouchers ruled unconstitutional and promoting public school reforms.
Let’s put forward, through such organizations as the Freedom from Religion Foundation, The Secular Coalition, The Center for Inquiry and other such groups a dramatic alternative to religious education. Perhaps atheist schools founded on science and reason would follow the path suggested by the great freethinker Joseph Lewis:
"Atheism rises above creeds and puts humanity upon one plane.
There can be no 'chosen people' in the atheist philosophy.
There are no bended knees in atheism;
No supplications, no prayers;
No sacrificial redemptions;
No 'divine' revelations;
No washing in the blood of the lamb;
No crusades, no massacres, no holy wars;
No heaven, no hell, no purgatory;
No silly rewards and no vindictive punishments;
No christs, and no saviors;
No devils, no ghosts and no gods."
Source: Joseph Lewis, "Atheist Rises Above Creeds," part of an address on atheism delivered at a symposium at Community Church, New York City, April 20, 1930. Atheism and Other Addresses by Joseph Lewis (1941)
Now that would be a voucher option I would support. If freethinkers got together and created such an option, it might be the end of voucher programs around the country: Christian politicians would no more tolerate taxpayer-funded “in science and reason we trust” godless schools than they would schools for jihadists, devil worshippers or socialists.
Be well, look on the bright side and fight back.