Don’t worry if that juicy apple has a rotten spot, folks. Just quickly swallow the mush and move on. There is still plenty of crisp, cool fruit to enjoy once you get past it. That’s the thrust of an argument posted recently at the redefinED blog: Why science advocates should embrace vouchers, school choice. (hat tip to Bridge to Tomorrow.)
The author of that post, Ron Matus, was a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and did an excellent job of covering education issues, including the exhausting 2008 controversy over the teaching of evolution in Florida’s schools. I had always considered him a member of the reality-based community who did his best to advocate for sound science education even while wearing the fair-and-balanced-reporter hat. He’s no longer at the Times, though. He recently scrubbed away the newsprint ink embedded in his fingertips and slipped into a new career as Assistant Director for Policy & Public Affairs at Step Up for Students, the organization that administers Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program. Now his job is to promote his employer’s causes, which are vouchers and school choice.
In that blog post, Matus tried to do some damage control. A recent New York Times article took voucher programs to task for funneling public tax dollars to blatantly religious education. Instead of evolution in biology class, students heard about Adam, Eve and Noah. Matus professes his acceptance of evolution as fact, but then he says that creationism isn’t something to froth at the mouth about if all the other aspects of private school education are exceptional. “Even if we disagree about creationism, we shouldn’t be so blinded that we forget all the other lessons these children receive in all the other classes they take, in all the years they attend school.”
How about we take a minute to swim around in the deep end of ridiculousness? Let’s pair a phenomenal reading program with a “science” book that says the earth is flat. The science lab has an expensive telescope that would be the envy of any college level astronomy program and it’s being used to show students that the sun goes around the earth. The history program won a shelf full of awards for its in-depth Civil War section, but then there’s that page later in the textbook that says the moon landings were fake. Oh, and President Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
Wave all that stuff away as my overreaction. I’m going overboard. No one actually teaches that stuff in school. Be serious, Brandon.
From the New York Times article: “A commonly used sixth-grade science text retells the creation story contained in Genesis, omitting any other explanation. An economics book used in some high schools holds that the Antichrist — a world ruler predicted in the New Testament — will one day control what is bought and sold.”
How do we know, really know, that my made up, ridiculous examples aren’t actually being taught in a private school where some students are attending with voucher funds? We don’t. And that’s what is so damn scary.
I’m sorry, Matus, but if any subject being taught in a private school supplants reality with ideology, then the whole barrel of apples is suspect. Sure, parents can choose a private school’s amazing language arts program, but public tax dollars most certainly should not support the garbage being fed to students a few doors down the hall.
The issue of vouchers paying for antievolution instruction has come up before here in Florida. I’m writing a book about the history of antievolution efforts in Florida. (I’m actually done with the bulk of the writing, more than 82,000 words now, and I’m going through the tedious editing, fact checking and citation organizing now. I hope to be all done and ready to shop for a publisher by the end of this month!) I’ll leave you with a relevant excerpt from chapter 8.
Education in general has been a major issue in Florida for decades, highlighted in 1998 by the strengthening of the education clause in the state’s constitution, which starts with: “The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida.” The following year Gov. Jeb Bush pushed the concept of offering school vouchers through the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The original version of the program allowed students who attended consistently failing public schools to either transfer to a higher performing public school or use state funds to attend a participating private school.
A separate voucher program, called The McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, was created a couple of years later. In this program, the voucher was based on students’ special needs instead of any school’s performance. Eligible students could transfer between public schools or choose to attend a private school. A third voucher program, called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, was also implemented in the early 2000s to “encourage private, voluntary contributions from corporate donors to non-profit scholarship funding organizations (SFOs) that award scholarships to children from low-income families.”
Public schools were under increasing pressure to abide by state standards and improve their performance under Gov. Bush’s education reform programs he called the “A+ Plan.” Students’ performance on state-mandated annual exams, combined with other factors, resulted in letter grades being given to each public school, essentially marking schools in a very public manner as passing or failing. Private schools were not subjected to any of these requirements, which critics of the voucher programs frequently pointed out. Additionally, the private schools taking in voucher students had very little in the way of academic oversight or tracking by the state.
In all three voucher programs, the participating private schools could be sectarian or nonsectarian. However, for a private school to be eligible to participate in the Opportunity Scholarship Program it had to meet a short list of requirements, including: “Agree not to compel any student attending the private school on an opportunity scholarship to profess a specific ideological belief, to pray, or to worship.”
However, this wasn’t on the list of private school requirements in the other two voucher programs. As a matter of fact, the majority of the schools accepting them were religious. For instance, of all the private schools accepting McKay Scholarship students in the 2010-2011 school year, 64 percent were religious and 36 percent were non-religious. In the same school year, the Tax Credit Scholarship private schools were 79 percent religious and 21 percent non-religious.
“Many of the parents bring their kids here because they want a Christian education,” a voucher-accepting private school principal told the Palm Beach Post in 2005. “And a Christian education does not include evolution.” The newspaper noted that the state did not track what curricula were used at private schools and so reporters investigated the issue to find out. A survey found that 43 percent of religious schools that accept voucher students used curricula from distinctively conservative Christian companies. According to the Palm Beach Post, this equated to “about 375 voucher-taking schools, educating about 8,700 students” statewide.
One such company is A Beka Book, which is based in Pensacola and affiliated with Pensacola Christian College. Its science textbooks are based on Biblical literalist and young earth creationist beliefs. The Post pointed out that a sixth-grade science textbook sold by the company was advertised as: “This teachable, readable, and memorable book presents the universe as the direct creation of God and refutes the man-made idea of evolution.” The same book and description is still offered on the A Beka Book website in 2012. An eighth-grade textbook contains a chapter on “science versus the false philosophy of evolution.”
As soon as the Opportunity Scholarship Program became a reality, opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Education Association, sued to have the program stopped. They claimed that the voucher program violated both the federal and the state constitutions in multiple ways. One complaint was that when voucher money went to private religious schools the program violated the Florida Constitution, Article I, Section 3, which states: “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”
The case, Holmes v. Bush, was bounced back and forth among the Florida courts. In 2004 an eight-judge majority of the whole Florida Court of Appeals determined that the Opportunity Scholarship Program did violate that state constitutional provision. It was also determined that the program violated another, separate provision that requires the state to provide a “uniform, high quality education.” An appeal kicked the case up to the Florida Supreme Court where it was determined in 2006 that the vouchers were unconstitutional under the “uniform” education provision. However, the justices declined to offer an opinion on the aid to sectarian institution provision.
The end result, though, was that Opportunity Scholarship vouchers could no longer be used at private schools. The other two voucher programs – McKay and Corporate Tax Credit – were not affected, and there has yet to be any legal challenges to them.