Charters, Vouchers, Creationism

Only a few months ago, two Jefferson Parish schoolteachers raged a spirited debate about charter schools with me. They were against them.

“They are destroying public education,” one said to me as they departed.

That comment – one I’ve heard repeatedly in the past few years as charter schools have proliferated in Orleans Parish – perplexed me because it contains a misleading assumption. It implies that charter schools aren’t public schools. They are public schools: They’re simply a new model of taxpayer-supported school, one that’s slowly transforming a famously failing public school system.

That conversation came to mind recently when Gov. Jindal signed into law radically new policies that really do have the potential of destroying public education – at least the old method of doing it.

 These days, charter schools are a quaint addition to the public school landscape compared to this new age of reform. Fed up with the status quo, education reform has swung to an opposite extreme and some of the changes appear to be less about educational quality than about political ideology and religious beliefs.

Changes to teacher tenure policies may do more for improving schools than anyone could foresee. However, sending thousands of children to religious schools on taxpayer-funded vouchers reads like a conservative strategy to put “God back in schools,” as was the cry after forced school prayer was found to be unconstitutional.

The new policy allows low-income parents to take state money and enroll children in “private” schools. But the reality is “private” means “religious” the majority of the time, because upscale private schools are far too expensive – and sometimes exclusive – for low-income parents to manage. Only religious schools – Catholic schools – in the New Orleans area are affordable enough for a voucher to cover the cost of an education.

The argument that vouchers allow low-income parents to escape bad schools sounds reasonable, even more socially equitable, but since when have conservatives cared all that passionately about social fairness? The conservative agenda also included fighting affirmative action policies in higher education, which had the net effect of allowing a few, mostly middle-class minorities, spots in prestigious universities.

Hardly an earth-shaking approach to social equity, yet such policies brought criticism from conservatives and upper-middle-class parents who blamed them every time a college-bound son or daughter was denied a spot at a coveted university.

The argument for vouchers reminds me of the new creationism argument. When the religious conservative drive to teach creationism in schools couldn’t get passed, the general consensus that religious education belongs in church, not taxpayer-supported schools, advocates changed tactics and semantics.

Instead of fighting to introduce the seven-day creation story into classrooms, they launched a less specifically Christian approach for religious education. Called “Intelligent Design,” the old creationism argument now is wrapped in scientific-sounding language intended to bypass U.S. Supreme Court decisions that bar religious education in public schools.

“ID” is a term adopted by anti-Darwin forces that proposes the idea that there are aspects of living organisms that are best explained by “designing intelligence,” i.e. God, rather than the randomness of Darwinism. In a nutshell, ID offers the theory that life forms are the result of a planned process, not the result of thousands of years of slow evolution. Advocates of ID say it’s based on an “inference” taken from biological data, not on religious teachings.

It is unknown whether ID was lurking in the background in 2008 when the Science Education Act easily passed through the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Jindal. The law allows school boards to approve “supplemental” materials to teach science, language that critics say is a veiled effort to allow science teachers to counter-balance instruction of evolution with a creationist view. An attempt to repeal the law failed in the Legislature this year.

So far, the new version has escaped the fate of the state’s 1981 Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act. That act was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, but that was three decades ago. Courts have been more lenient about vouchers.

Opponents say that using taxpayer money to educate students in religious schools is a violation of the separation of church and state doctrine. But as conservatives have gained influence in state legislatures, voucher programs have spread across the nation, despite the fact that there is little to no evidence that non-public schools provide a better education.

Because the accountability measures that govern public schools don’t apply to non-public schools, it’s difficult to judge the quality of these schools. They may be adequate for children from more privileged backgrounds, but are they equipped to educate those from disadvantaged backgrounds? Advocates ignore such questions, adding to skepticism that the voucher program is primarily about providing greater educational opportunities for low-income students.

What is very clear, however, is that vouchers have the potential to save Catholic schools from enrollment declines. The Christian Century, an ecumenical magazine based in Chicago, reported in 2010 that Catholic school enrollment in New Orleans has declined 19 percent since Hurricane Katrina struck. In fact, enrollment is declining in parochial schools nationwide.

 Gov. Jindal, a devoted Catholic, signed the bill into law at a Catholic school, a fitting backdrop for a measure that could save many parochial schools from closing. Considering the contributions they have made to New Orleans, that side effect may be laudable, but would taxpayers statewide agree to a bailout if they were allowed to vote on the issue? That is doubtful.

 The voucher program appears to be here to stay, maybe even expanded again to include all income groups, as was the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which provides full college tuition scholarships for high school students meeting certain academic requirements.

Taxpayers can only hope that non-public schools of all varieties will use their hard-earned money for strong academic instruction and not for other purposes. Since there will be little public oversight, the quality of such schools will have to be accepted on the basis of faith.

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