C.S. Lewis wrote, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…” Such is the gradual, nearly imperceptible edging of both federal and state government into private and parochial education.
When the name of freshly-minted Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is bandied about, the pendulum swings widely in both directions. As an advocate of private and parochial school vouchers, DeVos has disciples and detractors common to any hotbed issue. The division is largely partisan with predominantly progressive teachers and education associations opposed to the concept, and typically conservative idealists jumping up and down cheering like a high school prep squad. The progressives hate it for fear money drawn away from public education will only further the despair currently plaguing government schools. Conservatives love it because they believe vouchers will benefit children trapped in the despair of government schools.
Which argument is more accurate remains to be seen, but the theory will assuredly be tested at the federal level based on statements being made by the current administration and a proposed budget that allocates some $250 million to a private/parochial school voucher program.
The Rise of State Voucher Programs
Meanwhile, at the state level, voucher laws are proliferating. Currently, fourteen states offer vouchers for private schools, which is a direct payment from the state to subsidize a child’s K-12 education. Five states offer an ESA — otherwise known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, Education Savings Accounts, or some variation — that use a family debit card to pay tuition or other approved education expenses. Whatever you call it, the response is the same. Progressives hate it (gloom, despair, and agony), and conservatives love it (tangerine trees and marshmallow pies).
The pendulum continues to swing. Recently, Texas House legislators voted down an ESA bill that would have allowed state education dollars to flow into private schools. On the flip side, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed into law a sweeping expansion of the state’s ESA program. Begun in 2011, ESAs in Arizona previously limited eligibility to students who met certain criteria. The new law opens the program to all 1.1 million students attending public schools. In Nevada, the state Supreme Court recently ruled the program’s funding source was unconstitutional.
News sources and social media are rife with emotion from both sides of the aisle. Conspicuously absent is commentary from private and parochial school administrators or their school families. These are obviously the types of schools that have the most to gain from voucher expansions. Or, depending on how much foresight you have, the most to lose.
For example, in 2011, 3,900 Indiana students used private school vouchers the first year the program was offered. In 2016, that number had grown to 34,000. That’s a boon for private and religious schools. But at what cost?
Beware the Voucher Bait-and-Switch
Douglas Wilson, one of the founders of Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, wrote in his book, The Case for Classical Christian Education, a simple yet foreboding reminder of the reality of government entanglement: He who takes the king’s coin becomes the king’s man. Government money always comes with strings attached, strings about which private and parochial school administrators should be familiar before allowing themselves to be hamstrung by them.
Under Indiana law, private and parochial schools that accept vouchers are subject to the state’s A-F Accountability system; a system that forces private and parochial schools to teach to the test like every other government school. Many school voucher programs set tuition caps that forbid a private school from charging any tuition or fees beyond the amount of the voucher. In Wisconsin, a religious school may not require a student to participate in religious activities without parental consent. In Maryland, a private school many not discriminate based on sexual orientation. Still other programs have mandatory accreditation requirements, prohibit religious schools from compelling prayer or worship, and classify school personnel as municipal employees subject to collective bargaining provisions. A voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, prohibits the teaching of “…hatred against any person or group.” Which begs the question: does teaching traditional marriage constitute hatred against a person or group?
Most of these regulations weren’t written into the original laws. Had they been, voucher legislation would have been irrefutably unpalatable. Again, Doug Wilson: “Today the conditions might be tolerable. In fact, they will certainly be tolerable because otherwise the bait would not hide the hook. But if they are not tolerable tomorrow…we will discover that getting out of the trap is a lot more difficult than getting into it.”
Resisting the Dangerous Temptation of Government Money
Government has never been able to self-police. It knows one thing and one thing only and that’s to perpetuate more government. It is incapable of reducing or limiting its own authority. With that said, the obvious question is whether private and religious school leaders will create policies that protect their schools and school families from government overreach, or whether a new funding source will have richer appeal. Declining enrollment will weigh heavily in that decision. Total private school enrollment has decreased by 12 percent between 2003–04 and 2013–14, and is projected to decrease by 6 percent to 5.1 million students in the next decade.
From that perspective, the long-term picture looks bleak. But resisting entanglement with the government, an entity notoriously hostile to religion, is imperative. To maintain academic freedom and integrity, religious schools must reject any form of public control however innocuous it might initially seem. If not, both private and religious schools become quasi-public institutions and the demise of both will almost certainly follow.
Preventing the continued secularization of religious schools should be incentive enough for administrators to take a stance in opposition to government-issued vouchers. Government involvement dictates that education in parochial schools will not remain unscathed, and the unwillingness of government to limit its own power and its growing disaffection toward Christianity makes state-issued vouchers and religious education irreconcilable.
The bait has been set. What remains to be seen is whether private and religious school leaders will see the hook before it’s too late.