The Baptist Standard is the news journal of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. The news stories are accurately and fairly covered, and the opinion pieces are usually fair and factual. However, there are some glaring inconsistencies and errors in the editorial piece linked above, which appeared on February 22, 2017, written by editor Marv Knox, related to the issue of school choice and the proposals of vouchers for private schools being proposed at the time to the Texas Legislature. It doesn’t appear that the editor did much more than cite commonly held, parroted beliefs about school choice of those opposed to it, without doing much research on the subject.
I spent more than 25 years in Texas, most of that as a high school teacher, in private, Christian schools, in public school and in a mission driven charter school. I can certainly agree with Knox’s assertion that “Texas can and should do better by its children.” Public education in Texas ranks near the bottom in most categories when compared to other states, including in what is budgeted for its schools. Knox is also right when he notes that the state has shown “precious little care for civil rights and the poor.” But he is wrong when he asserts, without supporting evidence, that school choice initiatives, including vouchers, do not address the issues of educational quality or civil rights, especially for the poor.
Until recently, the Baptist investment in Christian education has been through church programs like Sunday School, and through a well-developed system of higher education at the college and university level in particular. A large number of students in Baptist colleges and universities are majoring in some aspect of the education field, preparing to be teachers and administrators, and if they understand and buy into their school’s mission and purpose statements, they are doing so to be “salt and light” in their chosen field. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
If the statistics across the board hold true, about 80% of those students are financing their pursuit of a degree with Pell Grants. So did I, when I attended a Baptist college back in the 70’s, though they were called Basic Educational Opportunity Grants back then. You can qualify for a Pell Grant and major in religious studies at a church-related college or university if you want to. And while there are some qualifications and restrictions placed on their use by the school, they are taxpayer money going to support parochial education. Most proposed and existing school choice voucher programs are based on this program, and the court cases which have tested state-based voucher programs utilize the same legal principles. The argument that there is a difference between college and grade school education because the latter is compulsory does not nullify the argument that a Pell Grant is a government tax funded voucher given to the student for the purpose of funding their education, including religious teaching in a church-owned college or university, since the courts have ruled in favor of vouchers. And Baptists, clearly, are supportive of this kind of assistance.
Virtually all of the existing state-based school choice voucher programs have income level requirements for recipients, which means that they are almost exclusively designed for use by “the least” among us. The dollar amounts that families qualify to receive are based on their income, and while I personally believe that any family, regardless of income, should be able to use such a grant to have their children in a school of their choosing, and not one that the government told them they must attend, most existing programs serve “the least of these.” Most of the current programs base the dollar value of the voucher on the annual cost per student of the state’s public education system, with the result that most vouchers provide more money to individual students than the tuition rates at the private schools they attend. In Ohio, for example, the average annual cost per student in the public school system is $12,000. Subtract about $2,000 in federal aid, which the public school still gets even if the student isn’t enrolled, and the value of a voucher is about $10,000. With average private, Christian school tuition at $8,200, a voucher easily covers a student’s expenses and transportation, if provided. The average tuition and fee expense across the country at schools which belong to the Association of Christian Schools International is well below the per-student dollar amount that public schools get for educating children. So there are few places in the country where a student from a low income family couldn’t use a voucher for private, Christian school education. Most Christian schools are willing to use voucher programs as a means of filling their empty seats and spreading out the cost of their operation, and will take students regardless of the dollar amount of the voucher they receive.
Existing voucher programs, like the Opportunity Scholarship in the District of Columbia, actually do an excellent job of adding to the racial diversity of private schools, and reducing the concentration of minority students at the public ones. Over 80% of the participants are African American or Latino, so the vouchers reduce the concentration of minority students in failing, inner city schools and increase the diversity of the private schools which they attend. Some programs are made available to students in low performing school districts, many of which have a high minority population. Schools that accept voucher students have become broadly diverse as a result.
It is a personal opinion, but the separation of church and state issue in this case is moot. Parents are compelled to pay tax dollars, part of which go to support a public education system to which they don’t want to send their kids because they do not deliver the quality of instruction that they expect or want for their children, they are frequently not safe, and the curriculum and instruction is frequently hostile to those who hold to distinctively Christian values and perspectives. Compelling them to pay for an education system that is not high quality, doesn’t keep students safe, and teaches that the faith the student’s family has chosen to follow isn’t valid or reasonable is a violation of a family’s religious freedom.