Blog: The Educated Reporter

When Faith and Public Education Dollars Mix

Today the AP reported that some students taking part in Louisiana’s polarizing school voucher program will attend private academies that teach creationism, raising questions about the line separating public spending and faith.

Though several top private schools are participating in the voucher program, Reuters reported most “most of the available slots are in small Christian schools with scant track records.”

In 1987, in response to Louisiana’s “Creationism Act,” the U.S. Supreme court ruled that outright creationism cannot be taught equally alongside evolution because that practice would privilege the view of a particular faith. Critics of creationism have charged that, since that ruling, opponents of evolution have advanced “intelligent design” theories to promote faith-based interpretations of life’s origins. In 2008, Louisiana lawmakers passed the Louisiana Science Education Act, which allows the use of supplemental materials “that promote critical thinking skills, logical analysis and open and objective discussions of scientific theories being studied.” Attempts by science groups who say the law can be used to teach creationism have unsuccessfully tried to overturn the law.

A similar voucher law passed last year in Indiana was met with ridicule over what some said was a government kickback to religious groups. The plaintiffs filed a motion filed to block the law, arguing that over 90 percent of the 353 private schools eligible to receive public money were faith-based.

But disputes over religion and public education do not stop with Darwin and the book of Genesis. A U.S. Appeals court recently struck down a Milwaukee public school’s practice of using church facilities to stage graduation ceremonies. An Education Week summary of the ruling noted prominent conservative judge Richard A. Posner wrote in his dissent that “The likely [effect] of today’s decision will be … to confirm the view of many religious Americans that the courts are hostile to religion”

Large school districts that deal with overcrowded buildings sometimes rely on faith-based facilities for extra space. In New York City, active and non-active churches lease their space to the city’s school district, unsettling some families and advocates.

Is allowing public education dollars go to private, religious schools an acceptable option for offering families school choice? Can distressed school districts lean on temples and shrines to relieve overcrowding? Do students who choose to enroll in private religious schools have a say in what the textbooks teach? What’s your take?