Commentary Magazine


School Choice Versus Religious Prejudice

Last week I wrote about the victory scored in Indiana by school choice advocates when a far-reaching bill allowing parents of poor and middle class children to send their kids to private and religious schools rather than a failing public system. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled constitutional a measure that rightly allows a percentage of state education funds to follow the kids to whatever school was best for them. The principle here is that allowing a government monopoly on public education is something that prioritizes the needs of unions and bureaucracies rather than then needs of children. Vouchers create more engagement of families in education and provide much-needed competition for a public system that needs it in order to be forced to improve.

However, there was one argument against school choice that I did not address last week. That is the possibility that public funds could be used to finance private or religious schools that teach hate or undermine democracy. Ironically, the emptiness of that point was underscored by a news story out of Tennessee where Governor Bill Haslam is trying to shepherd his own vouchers bill through the legislature. In contrast to other venues throughout the country where liberal ideologues who wish to defend the government education monopoly are the prime obstacles to reform, in the Volunteer State the problem is a faction of conservatives who have no objection to helping parochial schools, so long as the faith upheld in them is their own.

A number of Republican members of the Tennessee state senate have expressed opposition to school choice because they fear that it would mean some children would have the ability to choose a Muslim school. According to reports there is only one such school in the state that would qualify for the plan, but Senator Jim Tracy doesn’t want any money to follow students to any institution where the Koran might be taught. Tracy and other colleagues who share this concern don’t seem to have the ability to distinguish between Islamists who preach jihad on the West and those that do conceive of their faith as a religion of peace. Another senator who sponsored a 2009 bill to ban the application of Sharia law in the state is also willing to end any chance for reform because of his anti-Muslim agenda. Their position is that choice is OK so long as it is not extended to a religion they don’t like.

While there are legitimate issues with Islamist governments elsewhere in the world that persecute the followers of other faiths and support terrorism, any attempt to inject that discussion into one about school policy in Tennessee is an absurdity. The Muslim minority there and throughout the nation has no more power to impose Sharia law on non-believers than Jews can impose halachah—Jewish religious laws—on other Americans. While no religion should be allowed to impose its tenets on others, the position that the law can and should allow for reasonable accommodation of faith is one that most conservatives understand and intuitively support. But when Muslims are involved some people lose their perspective and adopt positions such as the ones espoused by Tracy and his friends that can only be described as prejudicial.

I have long maintained that the allegation that American Muslims labor under a wave of persecution as part of a post-9/11 backlash is a myth. If anything, the government and most Americans have bent over backwards to ensure that Muslims are protected against prejudice and negative images of Islam have been few and far between in our popular culture, despite the best efforts of al-Qaeda and Iran to identify that faith with America’s enemies. But accounts of what is being said in the Tennessee legislature are enough to convince me that while Islamophobia is rare, it is not entirely a figment of the media’s imagination.

But even as we condemn a position that seems to be rooted strictly in a bias against a specific faith, it is important to address the issue as it relates to school choice. Bigots in Tennessee aren’t the first ones to raise the specter of school choice being a boon for schools run by extremists. Liberals worry that they can be used to bolster Christian fundamentalists as much as others don’t want them to aid schools that might promote Islamism.

But the question of extremist schools is a red herring that ought not to be allowed to derail choice in Tennessee or anywhere else.

Public schools may not be the only kind of public education, but that doesn’t mean states don’t have the right and the responsibility to ensure that any institution, be it a public charter, private or parochial adhere to basic standards and teach core curriculum items such as civics. Whether a school is private, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist should not be an issue, provided that it adhere to general standards including instruction in democratic values along with reading, writing, arithmetic as well faith.

It needs to be remembered that prohibitions against public funding of religion-based schools dates back not to the founders of our republic–most of whom considered faith to be an integral part of education–but to the late 19th century. It was then that so-called “Blaine amendments”—named after James G. Blaine, the 1884 Republican presidential candidate—swept the nation fueled by a wave of anti-Catholic prejudice. Their purpose was to hamstring Catholic parochial schools because Protestant bigots saw them as tools of a papist conspiracy that would allow the pope to take over the United States.

Americans should look back on that madness with regret and shame, but it is no coincidence that an effort to undo a Blaine-style ban on funding non-government schools should be derailed by a different variety of the same hateful virus. Radical separationism of the sort that would prohibit allowing government funds to follow children to religious schools isn’t necessarily identical with prejudice, but is unsurprising to see this cause going back to its biased roots.

The cause of school choice is rooted in good public policy and the needs of children who deserve an escape route from a disastrous public school system that has heretofore only been the privilege of the wealthy. It can be defended against misleading charges that it will benefit extremists. But as was the case in our country’s past, it remains vulnerable to ancient hates that continue to resurface.

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