What Vouchers Can Do: Florida Tax-Funded Fundamentalism

I guess we shouldn’t really call it an “exposé” because it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t expect. Still, it can be eye-opening to see the sorts of things voucher programs can do. This week, the Orlando Sentinel explores the content of fundamentalist textbooks used at area private schools. The story prompts us to ask a tough question about voucher programs: Is it fair to limit voucher programs only to religions we like?

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Should taxes pay for these textbooks?

As I’ve argued in a couple of academic articles, the history of fundamentalist textbook publishing is key to understanding both the “Christian-school” movement and the subsequent evangelical homeschooling exodus.

Without the work of school publishers such as A Beka Book, Accelerated Christian Education, and Bob Jones University Press, I believe, conservative evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s would not have been able to open so many small private schools. And without pre-made curricular materials, evangelicals would not have been able to leave school by their millions in the 1990s to homeschool.

Plus, no one should think that these fundamentalist textbooks are static or monolithic. As I explored in a chapter in AJ Angulo’s terrific book Miseducation, ACE, A Beka, and Bob Jones are all very different from one another, and all have radically changed their treatment of topics such as US History.

It’s not just me: Dr. Jonny Scaramanga has devoted his early academic career to exploring the curriculum to which he was subjected as a youth. Dr. Scaramanga argues that Accelerated Christian Education never escaped its racist, homophobic origins, despite some surface changes and lip service to liberalization.

As the Orlando Sentinel explains, voucher programs in Florida are sending tax dollars to schools that use textbooks by the “big three” fundamentalist school publishers. As the investigators discovered, the textbooks are full of creationism, ethnocentrism, and historical denialism. As OS puts it,

[Investigators] found numerous instances of distorted history and science lessons that are outside mainstream academics. The books denounce evolution as untrue, for example, and one shows a cartoon of men and dinosaurs together, telling students the Biblical Noah likely brought baby dinosaurs onto his ark. The science books, they added, seem to discourage students from doing experiments or even asking questions. . . .

The social studies books downplay the horrors of slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans, they said. One book, in its brief section on the civil rights movement, said that “most black and white southerners had long lived together in harmony” and that “power-hungry individuals stirred up the people.”

We have to ask: Is this sort of thing okay for a tax-funded school? After all, there is nothing in this story that should come as a surprise. If we want to allow voucher programs that send tax money to private schools, we should expect some of those dollars to pay for curricula we disagree with. Is that okay?

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Hard-hitting curriculum for Florida’s third-graders. This sample comes from an Accelerated Christian Education reader.

Or, to put it in nerdier terms: How should policy-makers decide if religious schools qualify to participate in tax-funded programs? It can’t be simply on the basis of our own personal religious views. For example, I believe the ACE, BJU, and Abeka textbooks are terrible and I would never want my kid to use them in school. But my personal preferences can’t suffice to dictate policy. How can we decide which religious schools qualify for tax-funded voucher programs?

One option would simply be to make ALL religious schools off-limits for voucher-funded students. In some cases, though, that would seem to keep deserving kids from getting a higher-quality education than their local public schools can provide.

Another option would be to rule out schools that limit their students’ life chances. As one of the OS investigators argued, for example, using these creationist textbooks would hurt students. As the article explains,

“Students who have learned science in this kind of environment are not prepared for college experiences,” said Cynthia Bayer, a biology lecturer at the University of Central Florida who reviewed the science books. “They would be intellectually disadvantaged.”

But WOULD they? Anyone who knows the real story of American higher education knows that creationist students have plenty of creationist colleges they can attend. Is it fair to say that students can’t study creationist books because they don’t agree with mainstream science? Isn’t that the whole point of private schools in the first place?

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m firmly against using tax dollars to fund private religious schools. I think we should nix ALL religious schools from that sort of public funding. But we can’t do it only for some religious schools and not for others, based on the fact that we don’t like some of the religions. And we should not be surprised to find out that voucher programs are doing precisely what they were designed to do: Fund religious schools.

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  1. Agellius

     /  June 3, 2018

    I understand that the UK has long had state-funded “faith schools”. Do you contend that this is causing widespread problems in the UK? The UK in fact has an established religion. Has this caused the UK to turn into a theocracy? Are non-members of the established religion persecuted or oppressed?

    I really don’t understand this phobia of state funding of religious schools.

    • Historically, non-members of the established religion WERE persecuted and oppressed. These days, I’m more concerned–not phobic!–about the need in this country to recover from our historical hangover of an unofficial established religion.

      • Agellius

         /  June 3, 2018

        Yes, historically there was persecution etc., but having an established religion didn’t prevent that from ending. In Germany as well, I understand that people pay church taxes which are collected by the government and paid to the churches. Yet Germany is less religious than the U.S. Government involvement in religion clearly is not forcing anyone to be religious. For me it’s a matter of fairness: Those of us who want religious education for our children have to pay twice: to fund secular education as well as our own religious education. I understand you feel a “need” to “recover” from religion, but you’re not showing how government funding of religious schools would hurt anyone.

      • I think the double taxation argument is the strongest in favor of vouchers and tax breaks and similar programs. If public schools are like a town cook-out, the analogy might go, and I’m a vegetarian, why should I have to chip in for the cook-out when I can’t eat the food I’m paying for? And then have to buy something else that I CAN eat just to participate? A better analogy would be more like maintenance of Main Street. We all chip in to keep Main Street in order, because it is good for our whole town. If we don’t have a car, we might grumble, because we use Main Street less. But a thriving Main Street still helps us and we benefit from it. Plus, if we have a long, winding driveway, we have to pay to maintain that driveway as well as Main Street. But Main Street still benefits us. Could tax dollars help maintain our long driveway? Maybe, but that would be a benefit paid for by all that only one household benefits from.
        Now, if we imagine that the long, winding driveway leads to some sort of exclusive country club that discriminates against some members of the town, it makes even less sense for everyone to have to help pay for the private driveway. Not only is the driveway a benefit only for some, but it is actively harming those who are excluded from the club.

      • Agellius

         /  June 4, 2018

        I’m not saying I should not have to support public education, just that there’s nothing wrong, in principle, with my kids’ allotment of public education dollars being spent at a religious school. Using your town picnic analogy, it would be like a picnic where people are given a voucher for their meal, and they can use it either at the humongous, industrial-scale barbecue on the town square, where hundreds of people are served the same meat cooked in the same way, or at one of a number of small, intimate restaurants lining the square.

        Admittedly there are advantages to economies of scale, but disadvantages as well. If you insist on having only the industrial-scale food source, then people will complain and fight over what kind of food gets served, causing division, and those who can’t eat the food that is decided on will feel cheated. Whereas if everyone gets to choose his own food source then everyone’s happy.

        Plus, you know, more freedom.

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