School Choice Week: When Public Isn’t Public Anymore

National School Choice Week 2013, which runs from Jan. 27 through Feb. 2, shines a spotlight on the need for education opportunities for all. In only its third year, this bipartisan, grassroots effort features more than 3,500 events spanning all 50 states.

This is a guest post from Dr. John Hamilton, Professor of Communication & Cinema at Azusa Pacific University, a Fellow at the Center for Cultural Leadership, and Executive Producer of Del Rey Communications (

When it comes time to collect taxes from me, particularly property taxes used to fund the local public school, then believe me, brother, I am considered to be part of the public — the tax-paying public.  My dollars are just as coveted and conscripted as anyone else’s.

But a funny thing happens after that money is collected.  When it comes time to disburse the taxes for education, suddenly I am not considered part of the public, because I happen to want a Christian education for my children.

Now I am considered private, even though the school my children attend is public in every way.  It accepts kids from all walks of life, all faiths, all ethnicities. The school is not parochial, that is, it is not run by an ecclesiastical body or church, but by a school board made up of parents. So why is it now deemed private by the state tax collectors and disbursers, so that I can’t get back any of the $7,000 per child that is spent on everyone who attends the monolithic, state-run public school?

Is there only one public?  Are there not many publics that make up this great country?

Round and Round We Go

There’s a perverse circular reasoning here.  Why can’t we get a voucher for a school choice so we can send our children to the school of our choice, one in line with our beliefs and philosophy of education?  It’s because we have beliefs not endorsed by the powers that be in the educational establishment.  Consequently, we are marginalized as private, while they get to call themselves public. And so they get all the money, including mine.

But our school is public, that is, it is open to the public without discrimination.  Yet we are told, “You can’t have any tax funds because you are a private school.”  Why are we private?  “Because you are not public.”  Why aren’t we public?  “Because you don’t get any state funding.”  Round and round we go.

But Doesn’t Public Mean Neutral?

One might say, the state school is neutral and free of ideology, while your Christian school operates out of a belief system. Our Constitution says there is a separation of church and state.

Hold on, who changed the subject here?  Our Christian school isn’t a church; it’s a school, not even managed by a church.  Anyway, the First Amendment guarantees the “free exercise of religion,” not the elimination of belief from public life.

And clearly the public school is not neutral, free from a philosophy, or non-religious.  All schools are religious, none are neutral, insomuch as all education is based on a belief system.  The current state school system is based on the belief system of Secular Humanism. Becasue that system is the dominant faith in modern society, it has defined itself as neutral and unassailable. Nonbelievers are marginalized as private.

I respect those who say that the government should not be involved in schools at all (the separation of school and state!); therefore, we should not take any funding from the state, especially because funding brings oversight and interference.  But there will be always be interference of some sort anyway via fire codes, labor regulations, etc.

And if the state is going to take our tax dollars for education, we might as well get our fair share back.  Under the current system, the state counts on a percentage to opt out of their one-size-fits-all schools to keep their costs down.  But isn’t this inherently unfair?  Why should everyone pay for the schools of just the secularists who want the government-run schools?  It’s a simple matter of fairness.

Whatever Happened to Choice?

When the Children’s Scholarship Fund, founded in 1998 by Ted Forstmann and the late John Walton, started offering tuition grants for low-income families to attend non-public schools,  the phone lines were jammed after their appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.  Thousands and thousands of families, in the inner cities especially, craved an alternative to the state-controlled schools.  These parents weren’t segregationalists or weird cultists, just ordinary families who wanted choice.

These so-called private schools usually offer a quality education at half the cost that the state spends, as the rousing success of many Latino-dominated urban Catholic schools testifies.

Research shows that even home schooling produces students who do better on every standardized test. Yet these students are denied the opportunity to go to the school of their choice which may be unaffordable once their parents have already been compelled to pay taxes for a school they cannot endorse or use for their children.

[Bill: Report on research on homeschooling test results via The Washington Times available here. Key graph below.]

Five areas of academic pursuit were measured. In reading, the average  home-schooler scored at the 89th percentile; language, 84th percentile; math,  84th percentile; science, 86th percentile; and social studies, 84th percentile.  In the core studies (reading, language and math), the average home-schooler  scored at the 88th percentile.

The average public school student taking these standardized tests scored at  the 50th percentile in each subject area.

What If We Tried Being Fair?

How about we do this — everybody pays in, and then everybody gets his or her fair share when it comes time to pay out?

Parents, the ones responsible for their children’s upbringing, can delegate the educational process in part to schools of their choice, whether Secular, Christian, Montessori, Buddhist, or whatever suits them.  This is called freedom of choice, without a religious or philosophical penalty for those with diverse points of view.

Following the idea of the First Amendment, we can then not establish the religion of Secularism by favoring any one version of the academy.

Next up on School Choice Week: Why Homeschool Is the Best School

Related Links on School Choice: “MLK’s unfinished legacy and the fight for school choice”

School Choice for Ohio with links to other resources.

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  • Kevin Ford

    In the Netherlands, they have an interesting solution. If parents want religious instruction of their children, it is made available in the public school–with teachers acceptable to the parents. They consider equal access true neutrality.
    The problem here is the courts only define something as religious if it is sectarian. If it is non-sectarian (like atheism or humanism) it gets a pass.

    • Kevin,

      Very intresting point. I have often wondered why such instruction couldn’t be possible in the US as form of compromise.

    • billwald

      The problem here is that in most large US cities the public school district is more valued as “free” day care than for educating children.

  • Brian Westley

    Where to start…

    First, I’d like to point out that people with NO children ALSO pay taxes that support public schools, and people with more children do NOT pay more in taxes. You aren’t paying taxes for your own children, you are paying taxes in the same way you pay for any other public good, like roads — even roads you might never use.

    And no, US public schools do not teach religion. They don’t teach whether gods exist or not, or which religions are true or not (with the occasional exception of a teacher that individually violates the law). “Secularism” is not a religion.

    • Thanks, Brian. But simply saying secualrism is not a religion will not make it so. Even secularist philosopher John Gray said “Humanism is a secular religion thrown together from the decaying scraps of Christian myth.” Although I disagree about the decaying scraps part, he and most others rightly see secularism as the religion it is.

      Working backwards in your comment, the fact that funding presently goes to support schools that are failing or that are in direct contradiction to a citizen’s religious beliefs, is not solid grounds for continuing the practice. If we ended it tomorrow, then there would be no more argument from present practice. I think many who homeschool woudl argue that their community is not benefitting from a public school system that erodes the moral foundations of the next generation. Roads do not seek to sway the minds of our children.

      • Brian Westley

        ” But simply saying secualrism is not a religion will not make it so. Even secularist philosopher John Gray said “Humanism is a secular religion thrown together from the decaying scraps of Christian myth.” ”

        You might need to parse that again; he just said that HUMANISM is a secular religion, not secularism.

        “Working backwards in your comment, the fact that funding presently goes to support schools that are failing or that are in direct contradiction to a citizen’s religious beliefs, is not solid grounds for continuing the practice.”

        About 20% of the general public think the sun orbit the Earth. Does that mean schools shouldn’t teach that the Earth orbit the sun, and that the sun appears to orbit the Earth because of the Earth’s rotation?

        “I think many who homeschool woudl argue that their community is not benefitting from a public school system that erodes the moral foundations of the next generation. ”

        How do public schools erode the moral foundations, specifically?

    • billwald

      The ultimate philosophical problem in every religion is “first cause.” The only possible answers seem to be “god” and “always was.” If you chose “always was,” then your religion is the universe, it self. (Mother) Nature is your first cause.

  • Sven

    Private schools are completely divorced from educational standards. There is nothing stopping private schools from teaching fake science such as Young-Earth Creationism, fake history such as the claim that Nazis pushed a homosexual agenda, and even conspiracy theories such as the claim that scientists are engaged in a global scheme to lie about climate change. And yes, you can find each of these things currently being taught at various private schools here in the US. None of these things are touched upon in the oft-touted standardized tests.

    And like Mr. Westley said, secularism isn’t a religion. Here in America, government doesn’t pick losers (Free Exercise Clause) and it doesn’t pick winners (Establishment Clause) in the context of religion. Why is this basic neutrality incompatible with a “Christian education”?

    “…it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice. It is dominion we are after. Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after.”
    — George Grant, Coral Ridge Ministries

    • Sven,

      Please see my comment to Brian about secualrism as a religion. Not sure we can resolve that disagreement in a comment or two.

      On the question of standards in private education, I would argue that private schools are far more beholden to educational standards than public schools. Here’s why: if private schools do not produce what parents want, they lose their funding and have to shut their doors. When public schools fail to meet parental standards, very little, if anything, changes. The system is protected from the consequences of poor performance. As to the rest of your claims, your own worldview is showing.

      As to the sound byte from George Grant, I’d appreciate your sharing the context of his comment. I suspect he was speaking in reference to Genesis 1:26-28 from which the word dominion is derived. I fear your are projecting your own insecurities — no offense meant — onto a theological statement that, perhaps, you do not fully understand. One could make the same argument that it is secularism that is seeking to take dominion over all by eliminating all other systems of beliefs from our “public” schools.

      Comments as a medium of communications can seem so devoid of caring. I pray you take my words only in the kindest tone.

      • Ashley

        Secularism is not a religion. No reasonable person is going to accept your statement to the contrary, because it’s simply false. Nothing that does not involve spiritual or supernatural beliefs is a religion. You could correctly call secularism a philosophy or a belief system, but it is not a religion. This is inconvenient to people who would like to take taxpayer money to fund their children’s religious instruction, but convenience is not an indicator of truth.

        If you want your children to receive a religious education, pay for it yourself or find a way to overturn the first amendment. Careful when you do, though. The religion you get from the government might not be the one you want.

        • Sigh…. A friendly sigh. How would you define religion then, Ashley?

  • Randy

    This is an interesting discussion. Although I am a Baptist minister, I’m not in favor of vouchers or other means of using public money to fund private schools. I’m not convinced, though, that the 1st Amendment is the reason to reject funding such schools. It could be the case that a group of non-religious families decided to start a school to provide a better education for their children than the local public school provided. If school-choice vouchers were available to those parents, then it would be difficult to argue that giving such vouchers to religious parents violates the establishment clause.

    The thing to consider is what justifies using tax money to fund schools at all? Presumably, it is because it is in the interests of the citizens of the state that the children in the state receive a certain level of education, enough education that allows them to function as citizens themselves. So, in my opinion, the problem with giving taxpayer funds to private schools is not that they are religious, but that they are not accountable to the citizens of the state as a whole, but only to a subset of those citizens. As was stated, they are accountable to the parents, but there is no guarantee that the educational standards of the parents is the same as the educational standards of the collective citizens of the state. This, then, is not circular reasoning, perverse or otherwise. Private schools are private in the sense that they are free from public standards and control. This may be a good thing for some, but once they receive public money, they should then subject themselves to public control.

  • Penny Hammack

    It’s been a while, but someone once asked, why do seniors have to pay school tax when they no longer have children in schools. The answer was that we seniors should want and need children to be educated in order to prevent the evils of ignorance, poverty and crime to which uneducated people were prone. By the same token, you don’t want other possibly unchurched children to go uneducated so you can pull your children out of school to be home-schooled or church schooled. In other words if we all do our share then those children whose parents can’t or won’t pay for their schooling will get schooled anyway. Public schools, at least in Texas, are financed based on the number of regular students. Pull your kids out of school and that school won’t get as much money to teach the other students.
    If you have a particular religious belief you have the option of pulling your kids out of school and home-schooling them or paying for private education. I have known of several parents who chose to home-school and frankly it is a joke. The the parent does not have the time or the patience or the education or the money for textbooks so the child spends most of his/her time watching TV. Sesame Street can only take them so far. My husband and I were educated in public schools and gladly sent our children to public schools. We couldn’t afford for either of us to stay at home and home school our children even if we had thought it was appropriate. The schools did a good job. I put my husband through a state college, then we put our children through state colleges, and finally I was able to graduate from a state college. Our religion or lack of it did not matter.
    Finally, you seem to think that public schools are not teaching your children religion “like they should”. That’s your job. Just consider what you would think if you lived in a predominately Muslim or Catholic or Mormon or Evangelical or Jewish neighborhood and since the predominate religion didn’t coincide with your beliefs you had to pay for a private, religious education. Public schools need to be “one size fits all” and parents of faith should see to it that their children are educated in their faith.

  • ymoore

    Hi, Bill,
    Why in the world would you want the government to teach your child your religion? If you want to send your child to a school that will teach your private religion, then that is indeed a private school, and you must privately pay for that.
    I was a raised in a Christian home, but my parents were clear that they wanted me to go to a public school so that I would meet people who did not share our faith, ethnicity etc because, in the words of my father, “That way you’ll learn how to get along with everybody.” If the public schools start teaching Christianity, how would that be fair to Jews or Muslims or Hindus or atheists? And if the public schools agreed to forget about them and teach Christianity, what variety would they teach? Conservative Baptist? Liberal United Methodist? Pentecostal? Non-instrumental Church of Christ? Gay Metropolitan Community Church?

    We have public schools because it is in the public interest of the nation to have an educated citizenry. That’s why tax dollars go toward public education. Teaching about God is the responsibility of parents and their particular faith group, if they have one. Adults and children can live their faith in public schools; they can even talk about it. I remember in 7th grade when all the Jewish kids were preparing for their bat and bar mitzvahs how Robin Green’s face squished up when she asked me, “How many god’s do you believe in?” because I was one of maybe five Christians in our class. I told her, “One, in three parts.” Her face stayed squished, and we switched the subject.

    Really, live your faith at school, teach it at home and church.

    • Thanks again for the comment. The crux of it is this I think: public schools do teach religion. They just don’t call it religion. The absence of religion is secularism which is in itself a system of beliefs taken by faith with implications on life, the universe and everything. With secularism, the assumption is that all other beliefe systems’ claims are irrelevant. I think that assumption is at the starting point for secularism. The secularist would claim that truth, for example, can exist and be understood fully apart from any other belief system, even one that claims truth cannot be be fully understood outside of that system. In other words, we have systems of belief about the nature of reality that contradict one another. And one of those systems is taught each day withtaxpayer dollars to the exclusion of all others.

      I am not arguing, nor is the author above, that the schools should teach Christianity to the exclusion of other relgions. We’d be inthe same situation we are now — only the secularists and other swould be complaining — and sueing no doubt 🙂 . I am suggesting that parents be given a voucher to spend on their child’s education as they see fit, where they see fit in stead of being forced to subsidize a belief sytem with which they disagree on the grounds of their religious belief.

      Not sure if I made sense, but I do appreciate your patient and kind comments.

  • What private schools and homeschooling have in common are parents who are highly invested in their children’s education, so of course those children are scoring higher on achievement tests. Parental involvement is key, and often those students who are not doing so well in the public schools are from less than ideal family situations. Frequently private schools (and some home schoolers) will brag about their students’ high achievement and their superiority, leaving many to believe that it’s the teachers’/state’s/humanists’/secularists’ fault that some public schools are inferior. My children have attended and I have taught at both private and public schools, and it’s just plain unfair to say the playing field is level. Education is becoming more and more segregated between those who can afford to pay for private schooling and transport their children there (or stay at home and homeschool) and those who can’t. I don’t have answers…I just get tired of public schools being bashed.

    We have vouchers in our state (Indiana) and mostly what’s happened is the Christian parents are taking their kids out of public school and sending them to Christian schools. We really are not seeing many inner-city, poverty-stricken children leaving for better schools, at least in my city, and neither are the private schools recruiting those children who would greatly benefit from the more stable environment of a private school. I guess to me the voucher system in my state seems self-serving and selfish and isn’t helping those who need it the most.