This year 42 state legislatures are considering creating or expanding school voucher programs. Private parochial educators face serious pitfalls with some of these programs that could eliminate the effectiveness of their religious mission.
In an ancient story of twin brothers, Esau, next in line for the patriarchal blessing, returns famished from a hunting trip. When he arrives home, he finds his brother Jacob, cooking stew. Esau tells his brother, “I’m starving! Quick, give me some!”
Jacob, the consummate negotiator, asks for a bargain that will change the course of a nation. “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. In return, he surrenders his position as the next patriarch.
As the U.S. economy continues to falter, many private religious elementary and high schools are feeling quite famished. There is simply less money. Parents have less money to enroll their children, and this has led to layoffs of teachers, inability to upgrade or even maintain buildings, and many schools feel that they are going to have to find funding somewhere or simply shut their doors.
This year alone at least 42 state legislatures have introduced legislation 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 significant eligibility requirements on the schools that could change the very character of religious private schools. In at least one “choice scholarship” program, there are specific requirements that 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 parent to opt-out of devotional programs and activities. The schools will also be required to abide by all civil-rights anti-discrimination laws except for religion.
While these requirements might seem unreasonable, or even onerous, some religious elementary and secondary schools facing Hobson’s Choice, are claiming that they are fully eligible and are clamoring for the opportunity to obtain the state funding. And if the schools are not presently eligible, they may be willing to make whatever changes are necessary to become eligible in the eyes of the state.
If the religious background of a school allows it to segregate its secular life from its sacramental life, then it might be possible to participate in such a program. I am concerned, however, that schools from my own 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 its ranks. The school is better off financially than it has ever been 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 upon 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 the Ellen White 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 to the largest 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 approximately 7,548 educational institutions. So, just to be clear, the issue of who controls the curriculum and who gets to choose the teachers is extremely important 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.
But my concern is for the integrity of the private parochial school system. Schools could, by operation of their own agreement to accept requirements for scholarships, be regulated to the point that they have nothing unique to offer the world. That one school accepting a local requirement might subject other affiliated schools in the region, or even nationally, to extended liability because of statements they may make in order to obtain this money. For this reason, 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.
In the quest for survival, these schools might end up selling their birthright as holistic centers of learning andvoluntarily waive the very reason for their existence. When it comes to deciding whether to participate in these programs, it is imperative that parochial schools look further ahead and count the cost of surrendering key advantages for the “stew” of government money.
Note: People often wonder why it is possible for religious colleges and universities to receive public funding but not elementary schools and high schools. In Tilton v. Richardson, 403 U.S. 672(1971), The Supreme Court found several distinctions between colleges and universities to uphold the statutory scheme, including the fact that colleges do not have as their primary goal the indoctrination of students into a particular religion and the that college students are much less impressionable.
The American voucher scholarship programs, where separation of church and state is a clearly defended constitutional principle, are markedly different than programs in other countries, and comparisons between successes and failures internationally may not apply here.