This is an adaptation of an article that originally appeared in 2011.
In the ancient story, Esau, next in line for the patriarchal blessing, returns famished from a hunting trip. When he arrives home, he finds his brother, Jacob, cooking some stew. Esau tells his brother, “I’m starving! Quick, give me some of that stew!”
Jacob, the consummate negotiator, asks for a bargain that will change the course of nations. “You can have some, but you must first give me your birthright blessing.”
Esau responds, “What good is my birthright if I die of starvation?”
Esau swears an oath to give Jacob the birthright and receives the stew and some bread.
As the U.S. economy continues to falter, many private religious elementary and high schools are hungry. There is less money to go around. Parents struggle to enroll their children, leading religious schools to lay off teachers, hold off on upgrades or even maintain buildings. Many schools feel they will have to find funding or shut their doors.
In 2011, 42 state legislators introduced bills to either create or expand school voucher and scholarship tax credit programs in response to pressures from parents and private schools.
Private education credit programs tend to differ, with some simply providing a tax credit to parents. Others impose eligibility requirements on the schools that could change the very character of religious private schools. In at least one “choice scholarship” program, specific requirements will require participating schools to allow the government to evaluate the make-up of the school board and employment and admissions policies, review the school curriculum, and would require schools to provide opportunities for parents to opt-out of devotional programs and activities. The schools must also abide by all civil-rights anti-discrimination laws other than religion.
While these requirements might seem unreasonable or even onerous, some religious elementary and secondary schools facing this dilemma claim that they are fully eligible. They are clamoring for the opportunity to obtain state funding. And if the schools are not currently eligible, they may be willing to make whatever changes are necessary to become qualified in the eyes of the state.
If a school’s religious background allows it to segregate its secular life from its sacramental life, it might be possible to participate in such a program. I am concerned, however, that schools from my faith tradition be very cautious about getting involved in this funding scheme. Seventh-day Adventist education has taken a holistic approach that does not allow for secular education to be separated from spiritual education. To cite the CIRCLE (Curriculum and Instruction Resource Center Linking Educators) website, located at circle.adventist.org, “Adventists have embraced the philosophy that education should be redemptive in nature, for the purpose of restoring human beings to the image of God, our Creator. Mental, physical, social, and spiritual health, intellectual growth, and service to humanity form a core of values that are essential aspects of the Adventist education philosophy.”
In a reasonably predictable hypothetical situation, let’s assume that an Adventist school accepts vouchers and promises to follow the rules. Because of the excellent education offered, secular students soon swell their ranks. The school is better off financially than ever before and even takes out a mortgage for a new science building. Several parents choose to opt-out of religious instruction and file a complaint with the state when the science teacher, who is part of the “secular” part of the campus, teaches creationism. The school is investigated by an accreditation team that determines its science curriculum is too religious. The school must now decide whether it will confine creationism to the chapel or forego eligibility for the scholarship funding that it now relies on for its survival.
In Adventist Education, October-November 1989, Dr. George Akers, who was the World Director of Adventist Education wrote, “Distinct from extant educational philosophy is the idea that earthly study and growth move on to eternity and that, through the grace of God, building character fit for admission to eternity is the big business of life. It is a cooperative effort between home, school, and student. This special dimension of faith-nurture is stressed throughout Ellen White’s writings which indicate that teaching and learning should take place in the context of a special sensitivity to the cosmic struggle between good and evil. Accordingly, Ellen White lifted up the Bible as a great source of spiritual enlightenment that should illuminate all subject matter. Conversely, the study of subject matter should illustrate Biblical principles. This integration of faith and learning was to be the ligature of Christian education and the special expertise of a Christian teacher.”
Through this philosophy, the Adventist school system has grown into the most extensive Protestant educational system in the world. In the North American Division alone, there are over 1,049 elementary and secondary schools in the United States, Canada, and Bermuda, with 65,000 students enrolled. Globally, the church operates about 7,548 educational institutions. So, to be clear, the issue of who controls the curriculum and who gets to choose the teachers is crucial to the church.
There are Establishment Clause considerations about public money going to finance religion, financial arguments that public school systems will be drained to the benefit of private education, and many other arguments that people are using to dispute these types of voucher programs.
The integrity of the private parochial school system is at stake. Religious schools would, through their agreement to accept requirements for scholarships, make themselves vulnerable to regulation to the point that they have nothing unique to offer the world. In larger school systems, one school accepting a local requirement might subject other affiliated schools in the region or even nationally to extended liability because of the representations they make to achieve eligibility for the programs.
For this reason, a denominational-wide, or at least a national, approach to this issue is called for, and each program should be vetted to ensure that it will not involve undue regulations or impose liability on other institutions under the larger umbrella organization.
Churches that operate large-scale educational programs should begin now to educate parents, teachers, administrators, and school boards about the dangers of government funding so that when the time comes, people will be prepared to make the difficult decision, if necessary, to forego funding. If they do decide to accept funding, they should proactively anticipate and plan that if there is a conflict between religious teachings and funding requirements, the school will stop participating in the program regardless of the financial consequences.
The clear danger is that, In return for the “stew” of government money faith-based schools might sell their birthright as holistic centers of learning and voluntarily waive the very reason for their existence. Now is the time to look further ahead and count the cost and make plans for what to do when state funding becomes readily available.