Religion ghost in school voucher story?

Religion ghost in school voucher story? March 28, 2013

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:

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

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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