Capitol Chronicle

Of God, Schools, and Money: Assaults on Public Education Undermine the Possibility of Community

Last week, a federal court ignited a political firestorm for pointing out the obvious: that the Pledge of Allegiance constitutes a government-approved prayer. A day later, the same U.S. Supreme Court majority that sanctified President Bush decided that it's perfectly okay for taxpayers to be required to underwrite private religious education with their public school tax dollars. If you're keeping score, that means that at the end of regulation play, the Devil and God are tied, 1-1. Following the commercial break, please join us for the shootout.

One might be forgiven for a touch of cynicism in responding to this latest contradictory effusion of the American devotion to public religiosity. The pledge decision, although subject to much sanctimonious wailing and gnashing of teeth, will almost certainly be overturned -- indeed, the 9th Circuit's next-day stay of its own order suggests that the judges are now cowering in their chambers wondering how they got themselves into this mess. The Supreme Court decision -- that a Cleveland school voucher program which overwhelmingly funds religious schools does not violate the constitutional separation of church and state -- is likely to be with us and creating mischief for a very long time. That may well be an understatement: As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote prophetically in his dissent, "Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy." The court has sown the wind of sectarianism; can the whirlwind be far behind?

Nonetheless, having survived (more or less) a parochial-school education, I can testify that institutional religious instruction is just as likely to breed skepticism as it is devotion. The republic is probably not much threatened by a few thousand more Cleveland students being made subject to the whims of the usual odd (often very odd) assortment of temperamental priests and indentured nuns. But the public school budget is another matter. As it happens, the Cleveland school district, at 75,000 students, is approximately the same size as Austin's. Using the figures cited in the court's opinion, that district is now losing, primarily to Catholic schools, about $2,000 for each of 3,700 students -- or roughly $7.4 million a year. Yet the district's fixed costs, for educating the more than 70,000 students remaining, have certainly not decreased.

Does anybody think AISD and its students would be better off if the district budget abruptly lost another $7.4 million or more a year?

Following the Money

Try scaling and multiplying that deduction for some 1,100 Texas school districts, and you begin to get some sense of what the real battle over vouchers is about. If a statewide voucher program were instituted tomorrow, an estimated $1 billion in public school tax dollars would go to those families whose children are already attending private religious schools. Not one student would be removed from "underperforming" public schools, and we're already $1 billion in the hole -- but a great many parents prosperous enough to pay private school tuition would have yet one more tax subsidy in their pockets. Isn't that special?

Despite all our pretenses to the contrary, money is where the education rubber meets the road. That essential wisdom was made all the more apparent when it was revealed recently (just before the Supremes' voucher decision) that the Texas Education Agency had cheerfully distributed nearly 40% of available federal construction and renovation funds to a small selection of charter schools, which overall currently educate (not very well) around 1.1% of Texas students: 47,000 of the 4.2 million students in public schools. Charters are essentially midway between conventional public schools and vouchers, and the agency acknowledges it doesn't have the staff to monitor even the 270 or so schools opened under current charters granted by those indulgent folks at the State Board of Education.

A few charters have done well. But many have serious, sometimes scandalous, problems, and state evaluations confirm that overall, the relatively small number of charter schools are still less successful at educating students than are conventional schools. On the now-sacred TAAS scale, roughly 25% fewer charter students are passing the tests than those in public schools are (56% to 82%).

Divine Retribution

If the state can't maintain standards at quasi-public schools at a time when "accountability" is all the rage, how in tarnation will the TEA be able to keep track of the myriad variations on "private" schools that have already sprung up all over the strip malls and warehouse districts of Texas? Even the most hidebound Republican legislators grudgingly acknowledge that the state's current public education funding system is out-of-date and inadequate, and momentum has been building to begin to do something serious about the problem. The Supreme Court's majority rationalized its decision only by fudging the numbers on the available Cleveland "choices" -- insisting that magnets and charters within the public schools must be counted as one with the 96% religious school choices available outside those schools. Emboldened by that shell game, the voucher lobby is likely to rise again this fall. Instead of looking for ways to educate all our children as required under the Texas Constitution, we will be fending off an effort to subsidize the sectarian education of a few at the expense of the many.

When this country made the national decision, over the better part of the last century, to do its best to educate all its young people, it was not only a statement of faith in the power of education for economic growth. It was a growing declaration by the people at large that we share our fates as citizens, for better and worse, together, and that by building and sustaining public institutions, we aren't simply handing out credentials -- we're constructing a community. By its elevation of market "choice" to the level of a constitutional principle, the Supreme Court has taken another long step toward a future of every man for himself -- a future that inevitably leads, in the end, to God against all. n

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vouchers, Supreme Court, Cleveland, Texas Education Agency, State Board of Education, TAAS, charter schools

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