A Story We Should Care More About

Every new story about creationist teachers or praying cheerleaders gets lots of attention, but the news we should really care about involves the humdrum topics of taxes and school funding. As creationist hero William Jennings Bryan put it in the 1920s, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.” In Alabama, conservatives passed a law allowing taxpayers to write their paychecks in a different way. Yesterday, the state Supreme Court started hearing arguments about this new conservative strategy. This story is one we should all follow as if it were interesting. After all, it promises to give an answer that no praying cheerleader ever could: Will conservative taxpayers be able to rule the school?

Don’t look at us: Study school-funding laws!

Don’t look at us: Study school-funding laws!

The Alabama Accountability Act allows taxpayers to divert their tax money away from public schools and toward private ones. Alabama is not alone. More than a dozen states have similar laws on the books. What the justices decide in Alabama might direct debate about these laws nationwide.

Of course, not all the laws are the same. As the National Council of State Legislatures reported, as of April 2014, 14 states had some sort of tax-direction law. In general, these laws allow people to shift some of their taxes to scholarship funding organizations (SFOs). Instead of the tax money going to the government, it goes to these organizations. In turn, the SFOs defray the cost of private school for selected students.

Why should we care? Some critics of these laws insist that the laws are intended to break down the wall of separation between church and state. By allowing students to attend private religious schools, some say, these laws use tax dollars to pay for religious indoctrination.

In Georgia, for example, enemies of that state’s law have worried that students will be sent to conservative schools.  At some schools, foes announce, students are forced to pray and banned from supporting homosexual rights.

Conservative supporters of the laws, such as the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, insist that these laws are the last best chance for low-income students. With tax-funded scholarships, low-income students will be able to escape failing public schools. The real issue, according to the Institute for Justice, is the “right of all . . . parents to send their children to the school of their choice.”

Historically, since the 1930s conservatives have agreed that public schools have been taken over by a grasping, out-of-touch academic elite. Any effort to weaken public schools and strengthen private ones has been seen by many conservatives as a win. As I argue in my upcoming book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, this notion has been both enormously influential and widely shared among very different sorts of conservatives.

Religious conservatives have insisted that secularizing “humanists” like John Dewey have taken over public education. Free-market conservatives have worried that the same power-drunk Keynesian economics that dominated public policy between 1930 and 1980 had turned public schools into intellectual cesspools. Patriotic conservatives fretted that sneaky subversion had become the public-school norm. And we can’t forget, of course, that white racial conservatives considered desegregated public schools to be worse than no schools at all.

This sort of tax-direction law is the most recent strategy conservatives have used to move students out of public schools. Will it work? We should all be riveted to the noises coming out the Alabama Supreme Court. Their decision could set a precedent other states will have to notice.

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