Religion ghost in school voucher story?

School vouchers aren’t exactly a new concept.

In my education reporting days — before I ascended to Godbeat heaven — I covered the Oklahoma City school system for The Oklahoman.

In a front-page Sunday story in 1999, I highlighted the opposing viewpoints in Oklahoma at that time:

In a nation that cherishes separation of church and state, talk of publicly funded religious schools stirs emotional debate.

“School vouchers are just another way that the religious right wing is attempting to destroy our school system,” said Everett Ernst, 54, a Democrat who lives in Oklahoma City.

Indeed, the 35,000-member Oklahoma Christian Coalition is pushing for vouchers.

But Kenneth Wood, the coalition’s executive director, said the only motive is fairness.

The way Wood sees it, every child already has a full-paid scholarship to receive an education.

“Right now, they can only use the scholarship at one designated school,” Wood said.

Later in that piece, I boiled down the debate this way:

When the legislative session starts Feb. 1, Oklahoma lawmakers will debate school-choice issues ranging from parent-run charter schools to open transfers between public school districts.

No school-choice issue, though, inflames the public — or the politicians — like vouchers do.

Savior for the poor or welfare for the rich? Needed competition for a government monopoly or a move to destroy public education?

God-given choice for all taxpayers or an unconstitutional mingling of public dollars and religious entities? So goes the debate.

Vouchers made a cameo appearance in a 2004 episode of “The West Wing,” when the White House lobbied the Democratic mayor of Washington, D.C., to reject a voucher pilot program approved by Congress. But instead, the mayor insisted that he wanted the money, to the chagrin of President Bartlet:

BARTLET
You start handing out tuition vouchers for private school, you’re sending the message that it’s time to give up on public schools.

MAYOR
With all due respect, Mr. President, no one gets to talk to me about giving up on public schools. I assume I’m the only person in this room who actually went to public school.

BARTLET
And you couldn’t be a better advertisement for them.

MAYOR
Kids weren’t bringing guns to school in my day.

BARTLET
Republicans want to spend more on D.C. education, they should spend it on public schools.

MAYOR
We spend over $13,000 per student. That’s more than anywhere else in the country, and we don’t have a lot to show for it.

BARTLET
But if we start diverting money away from public schools, that’s the end of public education.

If you happened to catch that episode, some of the arguments in a front-page New York Times story today will sound familiar.

In fact, the lede reads almost as if the Times reporters and editors just landed on Earth from outer space and discovered this strange new phenomenon:

PHOENIX — A growing number of lawmakers across the country are taking steps to redefine public education, shifting the debate from the classroom to the pocketbook. Instead of simply financing a traditional system of neighborhood schools, legislators and some governors are headed toward funneling public money directly to families, who would be free to choose the kind of schooling they believe is best for their children, be it public, charter, private, religious, online or at home. …

Proponents say tax-credit and voucher programs offer families a way to escape failing public schools. But critics warn that by drawing money away from public schools, such programs weaken a system left vulnerable after years of crippling state budget cuts — while showing little evidence that students actually benefit.

“This movement is doing more than threaten the core of our traditional public school system,” said Timothy Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. “It’s pushing a national policy agenda embraced by conservatives across states that are receptive to conservative ideas.”

Conservative states and conservative ideas?

If I may ask the obvious question, kind GetReligion readers: Any chance that this story is haunted by a religion ghost? After all, 80 percent of private schools are religious in nature, according to the U.S. Education Department.

Oh, the story hints at the religion angle here:

Some parents of modest means are surprised to discover that the education savings accounts put private school within reach. When Nydia Salazar first dreamed of attending St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix, for example, her mother, Maria Salazar, a medical receptionist, figured there was no way she could afford it. The family had always struggled financially, and Nydia, 14, had always attended public school.

But then Ms. Salazar, 37, a single mother who holds two side jobs to make ends meet, heard of a scholarship fund that would allow her to use public dollars to pay the tuition.

She is now trying to coax other parents into signing up for similar scholarships. “When I tell them about private school, they say I’m crazy,” she said. “They think that’s only for rich people.”

And here:

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that school vouchers did not violate the Constitution’s separation of church and state, even though many families use the public money to send their children to religious schools. Many states, however, still have constitutional clauses prohibiting the financing of religious institutions with public money, which is why some of the programs face legal challenges. Voucher opponents also have filed suits based on state constitutional guarantees of public education.

But key questions — at least in my humble opinion — go unanswered.

For example, what role, if any, are religious groups and schools playing in these deliberations nationwide? And is the quality of education the only issue at play? Or do curriculum and religious freedom issues — such as the ability to pray or study the Bible at school — factor into the discussion?

Religion, it would seem to me, is a major element in this story and one that needs to be reflected in the news copy.

Agree? Disagree? By all means, leave a comment. But please focus on the journalism and not the pros or cons of vouchers.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jen L

    The issue I see with this is that the religious people discussed are given only one opinion. I, and others, who have been involved with private religious education are opposed to vouchers because it doesn’t usually take long before the government starts regulated the organizations that receive its money.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Good point, Jen.

      When I was covering the issue, I remember that some conservative Republicans opposed vouchers for the reason you gave. Meanwhile, some liberal Democrats (such as the fictional D.C. mayor) supported them because they saw an opening to improve education.

  • ceemac

    One thing I have never seen addressed in an article on vouchers is which schools will take them. Tuition at a top school is around 20k these days. Many of these schools are not religious or only nominally so. In Dallas 3 of the top 6 are religious (Ursiline, Jesuit, Cistercian) and 3 are not (Greenhill, Hockaday, St Mark).

  • ceemac

    Another thing that never gets addressed is idea of a vision of a “common school” education for all citizens.

  • FW Ken

    Is there really a “traditional system of neighborhood schools” in this country? I was struck by the casual use of a term that seems rather anachronistic. When I go to the local elementary school to vote, or drive by when the kids are coming our going, it’s noticeable that they are not like the kids who live in the immediate neighborhood. Hint: the white kids are missing.

  • sari

    FWKen,
    Austin area school districts subscribe to the neighborhood school concept, especially at the elementary level. Here, the biggest problem with neighborhood schools concerns how income disparity translates to huge differences in equipment and educational extensions. Schools in affluent neighborhoods tend to have active and well organized PTAS, which translates into major fundraising to fill financial gaps; a huge percentage of parents volunteer in the classrooms and free teachers of scut work.

    Bobby, I agree that the religious organizations which have traditionally pushed for school vouchers should have been addressed. If nothing else, I am shocked that the NYT failed to mention the OU’s (Orthodox Union) decision to make school vouchers a priority. Few Orthodox will send their children (rarely is child, singular, applicable) to public school, but the cost of educating even small families is horrendously expensive.


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