I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, December 26, 2016

"Kingdom Gain" Through School Vouchers: It's Already Working

Why do our new Secretary of Education and her husband support school vouchers? Back in 2001, they were quite candid about it:
The billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to "advance God's Kingdom." 
Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools. 
Her comments came during a 2001 meeting of “The Gathering,” an annual conference of some of the country’s wealthiest Christians. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were interviewed a year after voters rejected a Michigan ballot initiative to change the state’s constitution to allow public money to be spent on private and religious schools, which the DeVoses had backed. 
In the interview, an audio recording, which was obtained by POLITICO, the couple is candid about how their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education.
School choice, they say, leads to “greater Kingdom gain.”
The two also lament that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities, and they cite school choice as a way to reverse that troubling trend. [emphasis mine]
The DeVoses made these comments at "The Gathering," an annual conference of wealthy Christians that pushes a hard-right social agenda, including normalizing homophobia, destroying women's reproductive rights, and even denying climate science.

Certainly, the DeVoses buy into the idea that "competition" will improve schools -- but let's not for a second believe their school "choice" agenda stops there:
The DeVoses say in the 2001 interview that they adhere to the Calvinist perspective of Christianity. Richard Israel, a professor of the Old Testament at Vanguard University in California, said Calvinists see it as the work of Christians to influence culture. 
"Their view of the Christian mission isn’t to be in the fortress and hold out against the pagans, but to engage culture from a Christian worldview and transform it," Israel said.

At one point in their interview, the Devoses are asked directly if they want to "destroy our public schools."
"No, we are for good education, and for having every child have an opportunity for good education," Betsy DeVos says.

“We both believe that competition and choices make everyone better and that ultimately if the system that prevails in the United States today had more competition — there were more choices for people to make freely — that all of the schools would become better as a result."
However, the DeVoses also say public schools have “displaced” the church in terms of importance.

“The church — which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community — has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity, the center for what goes on in the community,” Dick DeVos says.
Now, I've been doing some research lately into the origins of school "choice" in America. Undeniably, the current choice movement has its origins in segregationist ideology in the South. I'll be saying a lot more about this later, but for right now, check out Jim Carl's Freedom of Choice: Vouchers in American Education and Kevin Cruse's White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism for the history.

As the 60s and 70s progressed, it became clear the "choice" movement wasn't going to be sustained by appealing to segregationists; another rationale had to be sold to the public. Enter Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist whose 1962 best-seller Freedom and Capitalism contains the first widely-read argument for school vouchers presented in terms of market-style "choice."

This is the mainstream argument you'll hear these days for school vouchers: creating a market for schooling will improve education by leveraging competition. Friedman asserts that this is also the best way to address school segregation: the market will reward producers who establish integrated schools, and it will reward consumers -- in other words, parents -- who choose those schools.

Of course, time has shown that Friedman was dead wrong about this. But his market-based arguments have still had a profound effect on the way we talk about school choice: by hiding behind the rhetoric of the free market, voucher proponents can erase any of their ulterior motives, including segregation and "Kingdom gain."

Which raises an interesting question regarding vouchers: Have the school "choice" programs already in place -- programs that exist in part thanks to the efforts of Betsy DeVos -- led to "Kingdom gain"?

Let's go to the data. I'm relying here on the National Center for Education Statistics' Private School Universe Survey (PSUS). There are a few cautions I have to note: first, the latest survey data is from 2011-12. I wasn't always able to get the names of schools in the various voucher programs we'll look at for the same year; the best I could do is match the schools that were in the PSUS for the closest year that I could find a list of participating schools. Which means I might be missing some schools that were part of the voucher program in 2011-12, or I'm relying on data from the PSUS that's earlier than I can confirm a school's actual participation.

That said, I think we've still got a fairly good picture of what private voucher schools look like in terms of their religious affiliation for several of the largest voucher programs in the nation. Let's start with Indiana, which is the likely model for a Trump/Pence/DeVos school "choice" plan.

Over 97 percent of the voucher schools in Indiana are affiliated with a Christian religion. Only a tiny fraction of enrolled students attend a nonsectarian school (I could only match 7 schools to the NCES data).

Nearly 9 in 10 students enrolled in a Milwaukee "choice" school get a Christian education. The nonsectarian schools are represented a little better here, but not by much.

Here's Louisiana:

More than 9 in 10 students attending a Louisiana "choice" school are enrolled in a Christian school. Again, the nonsectarian schools are only a small fraction of the total number of schools participating.

Finally, Washington, D.C.:

Even in the nation's capital, the vast majority of students attending a "scholarship" school are enrolled in some sort of Christian school.

A few things to consider about all this:

- First, there is good reason to believe that at least some of the families that are "choosing" private schools are doing so for religious reasons. In most of these areas, there hasn't been a big growth in nonreligious schools to meet market demand.

- Which means it's quite likely these families would have "chosen" private schools anyway. So taxpayers aren't necessarily just shifting costs from public schools over to private schools; very likely, if the vouchers were discontinued, they wouldn't be paying for the public school education of many of the students who now receive vouchers. Which means it's quite likely a big expansion in school vouchers will actually costs the taxpayers more than they currently spend on schooling.

- The Catholic church is, by far, the biggest recipient of school voucher monies. But, given its decline in vocations, it's questionable whether the church could sustain a large growth in enrollment without access to more clergy to teach and administer in its schools.

Certainly, evangelicals like the DeVoses have had tricky relations with Catholics over the years. But even if we separate Catholic schools from other Christian denominations, it's clear those other schools have done well under the voucher schemes already in place. Unquestionably, churches will be the biggest beneficiaries of any new, national school voucher program.

In Zelman v Simons-Harris -- the 5-4 decision that found school vouchers are constitutional -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority:
“In sum, the Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice. In keeping with an unbroken line of decisions rejecting challenges to similar programs, we hold that the program does not offend the Establishment Clause."
But in his dissent, David Souter points out the majority is engaging in nothing more than "formalism":

“If regular, public schools (which can get no voucher payments) participate in a voucher scheme with schools that can, and public expenditure is still predominantly on public schools, then the majority’s reasoning would find neutrality in a scheme of vouchers available for private tuition in districts with no secular private schools at all. Neutrality as the majority employs the term is, literally, verbal and nothing more.”
In other words: When voucher supporters claim they are offering "choice" to families, but the vast majority of the "choices" are religious, it's simply disingenuous to claim that the government is not using public funds, through school vouchers, to support churches.

If DeVos, or Pence, or Trump, try to weasel their way out of acknowledging this reality over the next several months, they should be called out on it -- hard. The plain truth is that Betsy DeVos's beloved school vouchers are going to get her exactly what she wants: "Kingdom gain" at the expense of the American taxpayer.

Pretending otherwise is bearing false witness. More to come...

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." - Matthew, 19:24.


StateAidGuy said...

I don't see what's so bad about letting sectarian schools have small amounts of public money. If these schools are providing decent educations in secular subjects, I see that as a public good.

Also, sometimes a school has a religious affiliation but provides almost no religious education. I know that St. Phillips was a secular school in all but name, despite its Episcopalian nominal affiliation, hence it was very easy for St. Phillips to covert to being charter school.

Is there really an Establishment Clause objection to a school whose church affiliation really goes no farther than a name and a funding source?

Another Question:

New Jersey's Abbott PreK program is a voucher program in all but name and Abbott PreKs are often located at churches. They are not supposed to provide religious education, but once the kids are at a church, it's easy enough to get the kids into religious classes in the after-hours. These PreKs pay rent too, and that helps churches' bottom lines.

Do you object to church-located Abbott PreKs?

But Mark, is this really about your purist stance in favor of the Establishment Clause? After all, you object to choice in education even when the school is purely secular - like charter schools.

I think you just want every cent of public money to go to traditional public schools, period.

Duke said...

Jeff, if you can find any time I've ever said I am against all forms of school choice, or charter schools as a whole, point it out to me.

I am against using public funds to support religious institutions, and the Constitution clearly prohibits exactly that. The SCOTUS decision in Zelman was wrong and Souter spells out why.

I have no problems with using church facilities for any type of public schooling. I started my K-12 career in a charter that rented from a church during the week. But making that a regular thing is a dangerous path: as you note, churches then start depending on public monies to help finance their operations. We have seen pastors in NJ try to get on the charter gravy train, explicitly saying they needed the funds to sustain their ministries. That's wrong and it's bad for public education.

I don't know the particulars of St. Philips but I do know it's the most racially isolated publicly funded school in Newark. I don't know what value that brings to the city as a whole.

Which is my primary objection to the arguments of those who tout "choice" -- you have to look at the SYSTEMIC impact of charters/vouchers/magnets/etc. before you can say they are "successful." That is not happening right now, and it's one of the primary functions of this blog.

DeVos was very clear that one of her objectives in pushing vouchers is "Kingdom gain." My reading of the data shows that is exactly what is happening. Further, there's very little evidence these schools are providing a positive SYSTEMIC impact; in fact, there's little evidence they do any better for their students when controlling for things like spending, student populations, and so on.

I think it would be very bad for education and the nation as a whole to implement a program where billions are diverted from public schools to fund religious institutions. What Trump has proposed is not a small amount at all.

Unknown said...

Catholic schools don't require a large body of religious to engage as teachers; my daughter was a teacher at her local Catholic school before it was closed. From what I've observed, it's mostly in the elementary schools that the bulk of teachers are nuns or priests.

However, what doesn't negate the fact that the current policies are completely reversing those of centuries of the separation of public and religious schools. It's understandable that those who desire a religious-based education for their children would support this, their personal bias is narrowing their understanding of the negative impact voucher systems will have on those not similarly inclined.

StateAidGuy said...

This is more about the Constitution than education per se, but I interpret the Establishment Clause to mean that the national government can't have an established church, like most European countries had at the time, including England with the Church of England.

Actually at first the Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government and several states had established churches in the early 1800s. CT had an established church until 1818. Even states that didn't have official, established churches had Christianity in their public schools until the 20th century.

The line "separation of church and state," doesn't appear in the Constitution, so I think it is a stretch to say that the Establishment Clause prohibits any government aid to going to any religious organization, especially if that organization serves a secular purpose too. This doesn't mean that government aid to religious organizations is required, just that it is not prohibited.

I think it is a little opportunistic of people to oppose school vouchers on church-state grounds when they accept public money going to other religious agencies, such as religious universities, religious nursing homes, religious cemeteries, religious hospitals, and religious social welfare organizations.

What I would consider clear language prohibiting public support for sectarian schools are the "Blaine Amendments" that appear in most state constitutions (but not NJ's).

"no money raised by taxation in any State, for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect, nor shall any money so raised, or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations."

Now that's a clear-cut prohibition on public money for sectarian schools (even if Blaine Amendments were clearly a product of anti-Catholic prejudice)

The problem with Souter's argument is that there is no Blaine Amendment in the US Constitution. The House passed a Blaine Amendment in the 1870s, but it didn't make it through the Senate.

Now, why would the House want that amendment if they already thought that the First Amendment already prohibited money going to religious schools?

(Zelman gets to the heart of what scares me about the Supreme Court and convinces me it is a destabilizing force in American government.

The Framers required an extraordinary degree of consensus to amend the Constitution - two-thirds of Congress plus three-quarters of the states. In the absence of clear Constitutional language prohibiting something, I think it is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution for the Supreme Court to prohibit anything unless there really is a clear Constitutional idea ordering that.

A Supreme Court decision is tantamount to amending the Constitution and there is no effective check on the Supreme Court, so I think the Supreme Court should use the power to declare laws unconstitutional very, very sparingly. To disallow things based on 5-4 decisions I think can be dangerous because it allows a bare majority of distant democratic legitimacy to determine the law for a huge, diverse nation.

(I think that one reason Trump got millions of votes from people who were disgusted by him is because they were scared sh*tless of what Clinton would do to the Supreme Court))

Also, who exactly is the victim of public money going to religious schools? It's not like abortion, or gun rights, or criminal justice, or free speech, where there are definable victims out there.

If some money goes to a religious schools the only "victims" are taxpayers, but in an extraordinarily diffuse way, and don't we all already have to pay for some public expenditures we find wasteful or immoral?