Update 11/28/2017 – When it comes to education I’m guided by the following principles. (1) I want parents to have a real choice in the education of their children – public/private, religious/secular, homeschooling. (2) I want this to be a choice for all parents, irregardless of income. (3) To the extent that this is seen as competing with quality public education is a problem but, ultimately, a false dichotomy. (4) The devil is in the details and I’m far less certain about those.
Donald Trump recently picked Betsy DeVos to be his secretary of education. She’s a controversial pick for several reasons and I am certainly not qualified to say one way or another on whether she is a good choice. But one of the reasons why she is controversial is because she is a proponent of school vouchers, the idea that parents who want to send their children to a private school could get money from the state to do so. As I understand it, they would get the equivalent of what it would cost the state to educate their child in a public school. This is a complex issue but I want to offer my own brief defense of the policy.
Public State Schools are Not Religiously Neutral
I would not always have defended the idea of education vouchers and my main reason would have been that this would have constituted a breach of the separation of church and state (see objection 2 below). My thinking was this: Public schools are religiously neutral institutions. Religious education should take place in the home and in the church/mosque/synagogue. Religious schools, by my estimation were, by and large, a luxury, and Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) parents who wanted to give their children a “religious education” were at no real disadvantage if they could not afford a private school.
Several things shifted my thinking on this, but all fall under the realization that my assumption that public schools were religiously neutral was deeply flawed. First, was my experience of being married to a science teacher at a Christian school that worked hard to integrate all the subjects with a Christian worldview. This helped me break down the spiritual/physical dualism that had tainted my theology, especially me theology of education. Second, I read several books which should how modern thinking was, at many points, fundamentally at odds with the biblical worldview and, importantly, that it was therefore necessary to have “thick” communities of faith which infused the Christian worldview at every level (see Leslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and Stanley Hauerwas’ Resident Aliens.
Third, I came to the realization that the government establishes state schools to meet its own ends as a state. Such a school will not be morally neutral but will serve the “civil religion” of the nation, even if done in secular terms. Indeed, I have concluded that we have a civil religion in our nation which is not religiously neutral and, indeed, is often antithetical to the Christian worldview which Christian parents are tasked with passing along to their children. Francis Schaeffer puts it like this:
“In the United States the materialistic, humanistic world view is being taught in most state schools. … We must never forget that the humanistic position is an exclusivist, closed system which shuts out all contending viewpoints – especially if these views teach anything other than relative values and standards. Anything which presents absolute truth, values, or standards is quite rightly seen by the humanist to be a total denial of the humanistic position.” (A Christian Manifesto)
These conclusions have led my wife and I to choose to send our children to a private Christian school. I do not think this is a mandate for all Christian parents – there are many other factors at play here – but my wife and I feel sufficiently compelled to use Christian education as a key tool as we seek to disciple our children. Many other Christian parents have come to the same conclusion (as well as Jewish and Muslim). My point is this: Children who go to public schools still get a religious education. They are still taught a worldview. And, in many ways, that “humanist, materialist” worldview will stand in opposition to the biblical worldview. State schools are not religiously neutral institutions.
Lower-Income parents who do not want their children educated in State schools are at a distinct disadvantage
This means that religious parents who don’t want their children being taught a competing worldview will essentially have to pay twice for the education of their children. First, they pay for their education by paying their taxes, collected and distributed as the state sees fit. Second, they pay for their education by sending their child to a private school.
This also means that poorer parents will not be able to send their children to private schools. Private schooling is expensive. While in some cases a school or church can offer a certain number of scholarships, the cost of private education makes it impossible for many even middle-income parents, and for nearly all lower-income parents.
If private education is a luxury, then this isn’t a big deal. But, if private education is an essential part of being able to pass along important aspects of your worldview and not having it undermined by an education designed to serve the purposes of the state, then asking a specific group of parents – religious ones – to double pay for their education seems to only unfair, but unjust.
Two objections are typically raised. First, that providing parents with vouchers which they can use to pay for a portion of their education at a religious school amounts to a breach of the separation of church and state since, presumably, it means tax dollars being sent to a religious institution. My first response would be to say that state schools are also not religiously neutral institutions, they simply express their religious tenants in secular/humanist terms. My second response would be that the money allocated is simply what the person would have (on average) paid into the tax pool. For more on this check out the Supreme Court Ruling Zelman v. Simmons-Harris which includes a five point Private Choice Test for constitutionality.
The second objection is that this would involve taking money away from public schools. That could certainly be the case but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, if it did cut into money allocated to public schools I would favor overall increases to education funding in order to close the gap.
For the sake of time I had to leave out a lot. My wife and I are fine with “double paying” so that we can send our children to a private school. God has blessed us with the means to do so and I am happy that I can contribute to the public school system. There are many things which I appreciate about public schools and I am beyond grateful for the teachers in my own public school, several of whom were great Christians and mentors. Nevertheless, I believe that many parents who see religious education as an obligation and who fear their own worldviews are being undermined in the state schools are financially unable to send their children to their school of choice. It is those parents for whom I believe a voucher system would be both fair and just.
Appendix: The strongest objection
There’s a final objection for which I do not yet have a response. For a school to be able to be able to participate in a school voucher program it would need to meet certain qualifications. Those qualifications would be determined by the government. For instance, in a school voucher program in Ohio that was deemed constitutional (see Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) participating schools were not allowed to have faith as one of the considerations for enrollment. This would have disqualified the school to which we send our daughter. And, for many religious schools, this would be a deal breaker. At some point, the qualifications for participation could undermine the purpose of the school, but it’s hard to see a way around the state – even if through a third party accreditation agency – requiring some level of oversight.
I stand by my post as “a” defense of school vouchers since I think they are, indeed, defensible. But it’s possible that there are simply too many complicating factors to doing them well. Or it’s possible that those challenges can be overcome. Or, perhaps there are other options available and as yet unexplored. So, this post is “a defense”, but certainly not the “definitive defense.”