Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Take Our Sheckels -- And Accept Our Shackles

Sara Robinson

This morning, Phil Yost of the AP writes:
The Supreme Court decided Monday not to plunge into the issue of school choice, passing up a dispute over a Maine law that bars the use of public funds to send students to private religious schools.

A conservative group, the Institute for Justice, had asked the justices to take the case. The group is representing eight Maine families who would receive public tuition funds but for the fact that their children attend religious schools.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and President Bush's homestate of Texas had weighed in, saying in filings to the Supreme Court that Maine is unconstitutionally discriminating against religion….

School districts in 145 small towns in Maine that have no high schools currently offer tuition for 17,000 students to attend high schools of their choice, public or private, in-state or out-of-state. But religious schools are no longer on the list….

In asking the Supreme Court to take the case, the Maine families cited the court's 2002 decision allowing the use of public funds in inner-city Cleveland to underwrite tuition at private or parochial schools if parents retain a wide choice of where to send their children.

If the fundamentalists pushing for school vouchers want to see where the voucher path ends up, they need look no farther than Canada.

The issue of religious education has always been a central front in the cultural conflicts between the country's two leading groups. As in the US, the mostly-Protestant English established secular public schools; but here, it's been the French Catholics (and other Catholic immigrants who followed) who have insisted that their parochial educational system deserved a similar level of public support.

Different provinces and cities have worked this out in different ways; but in almost all areas, it's come down to some form of government subsidy for both private and parochial schools. In Edmonton, for example, there's an entirely parallel public school system that's run by the Catholic Church; and parents decide which of the two systems their tax revenues will support. Evidently, it's not uncommon for Protestant parents to choose to send their kids and their tax dollars to the Catholic schools, many of which have excellent reputations and programs.

Here in British Columbia, the provincial government decided long ago that subsidizing private schools gave parents more options, while also reducing the need to build more public schools on their own dime. This is how it came to pass that my own two kids attend secular private schools on vouchers, which cover about 25% of their annual tuition bills. And we'd be getting these same vouchers if the kids were attending the local Episcopal, Baptist, or Catholic academies instead.

However: Any Canadian will tell you that taking lots of government money inevitably opens a school up for lots of government oversight as well. Locally, any school that receives public funding is bound to teach the BC provincial curriculum, or lose its accreditation. Every high school, public or private, issues the same high school diploma, certifying that their students have studied the same subjects out of the same books -- and have passed the same rigorous provincial exams to prove it.

Religious schools can hold chapel, have Bible studies, and offer electives on faith-based topics; but there's no religious revisionism in their history classes, no "intelligent design" in their science labs, no flinching from biological realities in the Health course. In the core subjects, it's exactly the same education their public-school peers are getting. It has to be: As long as they're taking public money, their curriculum must conform to public standards, and their administrators be held up to public accountability.

Contrary to the fears of American liberals, issuing vouchers hasn't reduced the overall level of educational quality. Since 2000, Canadian schools have consistently ranked among the world's top five in the rankings compiled every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Within Canada, the Alberta and BC schools are the best of this best, turning out students whose performance compares favorably with their top-ranked Japanese and Finnish peers. (The US, in contrast, has typically finished in the high teens among the 31 OECD countries ranked in recent years.)

But the trade-off that's kept these numbers high has been a level of government control over the process that has essentially turned these "independent" schools into another venue for public education. Any self-respecting American private school, religious or otherwise, would find this level of oversight intrusive to the point of outrage. But almost every Canadian private school accepts it, because their survival depends on those voucher funds.

US voucher advocates are indulging in the worst sort of magical thinking if they honestly believe that taking taxpayer money won't lead, as night follows day, to a similar level of taxpayer involvement in their affairs. The Canadian example shows that their choice couldn't be starker. They can have their independence, and retain the freedom to teach flat-earth creationism and Biblical history; or they can have our cash -- and with it, accept our larger consensus on who, what, and how they teach. In a democracy, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. (And people who think there is probably ought not be trusted with the education of the next American generation.)

The fundamentalist press may be grumbling about "activist judges" today -- but that's only because they lack the foresight to understand just how big a favor the Supreme Court has done them by pointing to the church-state wall, and telling them no.

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