Sunday, March 19, 2017

Why Congregations Across the Nation Should Stand Against Vouchers by Cheryl Binkley

Originally posted at: http://3rdmillenniumteacher.blogspot.com/2017/03/why-congregations-across-nation-should.html

Many of the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations of the U.S. behind the scenes are welcoming, even promoting the idea of government vouchers and financial supports for religious based PreK-12 schools, and the reasons are fairly evident.  More money, more students, the opportunity to open their own school.

Right now Vouchers is the flagship policy being promoted by Mrs. DeVos, the new Secretary of Ed, and by the new President, Mr. Trump.  The Secretary and President are supported by much of the Republican party which has depended on faith groups for their election since Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove figured out ways to attract churches to political action in the late 70s. Many politicians even see Vouchers, also called Ed Savings Accts and Scholarships, as a payoff to religious leaders who have delivered the votes in past elections.

However, there are some glaring reasons that Congregations across the US should rethink supporting or promoting vouchers for private PreK-12 schools. 
1. Our history of Religious Freedom as a nation is antithetical to requiring children be taught in a particular religion.
2. “Fundamentalists” and “Evangelicals” and “Christians” are not the monolithic group politicians would have us believe.
3. The story that public schools are anti-Judeo-Christian-values is untrue.
4.With the Money comes diminished control and fragmentation for our local communities. 

1. Our history of Religious Freedom as a nation is antithetical to requiring children be taught adherence to a particular governmental religion. 
I still remember as a child in Baptist Sunday School learning the story of Roger Williams and how he and his followers were pushed out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 by the Puritans who considered him and his Baptist followers heretics. 

The story of how he escaped in a blizzard and made his way to Rhode Island to eventually found the state of Rhode Island and the first Baptist church in the Colonies was important history in our church.  His belief in Separation of Church and State, in the importance of individual conscience, and his belief in treating the natives honorably were taught as hallmarks of what it meant to be Baptist, even as late as the 1960s.  Many American denominations have a similar “freedom of religion” story in their history.

Williams’ beliefs have become less revered now that media preachers outrank congregational ministers and following a charismatic preacher carries more weight than figuring out what you, yourself think.  But it’s not my goal to convince everyone that we should all become AnaBaptists.  The point is that the Puritans’ push to make Massachusetts Bay a theocracy quickly became antithetical to what it has meant to be American for the last 400 years. It is important to remind ourselves, that though we may be the religion in control of government this year, we may be the victims of a theocratic government when another sect takes over.

2. “Fundamentalists” and “Evangelicals” and “Christians” are not the monolithic group politicians would have us believe. 
Each of those terms has a different meaning, and every faith is a minority in some part of the country.  There is also no assurance that the private for-profit firms, who will also be founding new schools or are currently in place, will be any more in touch with community values than the elected boards we put in office through our local elections, and the leaders/teachers from among our own local population. 

It has become an urban legend that Republican views are Christian views, that they are only one set of beliefs, and  that the two labels are interchangeable.  Yet, beliefs, worship practices, and codes of belonging across Christian communities in the US are as diverse as the complex heritages we grow from: from Catholics, to Quakers, to Jehovahs Witnesses, the range of “Christian” churches is vast.  Even among Jewish Congregations, there is national diversity of types and practices.

Many families across the country have stories of breaches and breaks because Grandma was a Methodist, and the Great Grands could not abide that she might not raise the grandkids Church of Christ, or Presbyterian, or some other denomination, and those stories are not limited to long gone generations. There is even the old joke about the guy stranded on a tropical island who when found has two churches there– one where he worshiped before he split off (from himself) to the new one. 

My home town had two gas stations, one grocery store, one stop light and 26 churches– all variations on protestant Christianity.  Yet, there was a reason there were and still are 26 or more instead of fewer. Each had a slightly different flavor and style to the other 25, and the congregants in each considered their reason for belonging to that particular church and denomination something worth being separate for.  Which of those churches will have control over the new school that receives the bulk of the voucher money from the community’s taxes?

That variation has not gone away in communities across the nation, and it is good and important to keep that variety in the context of our personal searches for truth and meaning.  However, it makes converting our Monday-Friday schools into religious ones, a problematic endeavor.

3. The story that public schools are anti Judeo-Christian values is untrue. 
Politicians, and some ministers who want to separate us from one another, would have us believe that public schools deny children freedom of religious belief, deny them the option to personally  pray, and deny core values that have been part of Western Judeo-Christian tradition.

Yet, in most states, the pledge of allegiance with “under God” right there in the middle of it starts off each day, by law.  Holiday concerts in December of every year are still much loved performance events of most localities with traditional carols and some add on’s in welcome to other cultures. The opening prayers still get said at many a local event, and major calendar breaks are still centered mostly around western religious holidays.  After school programs sponsored by local religious groups continue to be hosted across the country--Except in places like Michigan (Mrs. DeVos’ custom designed home state system of privates) where the fabric of local community identity has been shredded by mostly for-profit private schools who use the communities' money without serving the greater community.

 Public schools have actually been able to understand the difference between widely varying individual church dogma and the general religious ethics that inform our civil society.  Miraculously (or not so miraculously) there are core values that do reach across religious lines, and not just protestant Christian religious lines.

Values like honesty, not cheating or stealing, respecting one another’s possessions, not hurting others, gratitude,  kindness, sharing, and respect for our families and elders are both religious and civil societal values which continue to be cornerstones that keep our classrooms and schools functioning as healthy communities. Those values we can teach and do teach.  Though reinforcement of these values on a worship day or through religious community are helpful and healthy, the basic religious ethic of all the Big Five religions are already part of our public school traditions because they are the values that help us live in harmony with one another as good neighbors. 

Will the same be true of the narrower, more dogmatic, or for profit schools that voucher/scholarship money goes to? There are no assurances because they will not have the same requirements or community oversight our current public schools have. Will the religious organization that runs the new school respect your child’s right to practice a slightly different religious belief or practice?  They will not be required to.


4. With the Money comes diminished local control,  and fragmentation of our local communities. 
For many years, the joke among farmers and other local businesses was that the scariest words one could hear was, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” The truth behind that fear is the reality that people who see citizens’ money as better spent based on outside views often bring ill-fitting policies. Public schools have suffered that plight much of late. Both Democrats and Republicans have felt economic unregulated capitalism would be a better system for managing schools than local democracy would.  Vouchers and Privately run Virtual Schools are the culmination of that belief. 

Nationally aligned business and political people believe that the unregulated Market will govern our children’s daily lives better than local community leaders, local parents, and local business people-- Just the way the Market has better governed our health care with better service and better prices. Neither ESSA nor DeVos/Trump Voucher-privatization will include actual local control, only corporate or indvidual religious organizational control.

While privates and virtuals will get the benefit of our federal, state, and local tax dollars; our local public schools will be left without enough to run the already legally required programs the privates and virtuals will not have to provide, with local districts unable to exert any control over the non-public schools that operate within their borders.  Those new schools (and some already established) do not operate with the same conceptual mission to serve the children and communities of the whole town, neighborhood, or county.  The new schools’ mission is to push a particular ideology or make a profit, regardless of the effect on the community as a whole.

Even if the new school happens to luckily be of your denomination, which of those 26 ministers will have control over what your child learns? And what happens when the money has been taken from the local school, but only those who "belong" are accepted?

It will be their choice, regardless of the effect on your community, your congregation, or your child or grandchild. 

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