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Tax-Supported Religious Schools

By Walt Gardner — December 19, 2014 2 min read
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Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court established the five-part Private Choice Test in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002, parents have been able to enroll their children in religious schools at taxpayer expense if they choose to do so. However, I wonder if the implications of this decision are fully understood. Consider what has happened in England and Turkey.

At the Saltley School and Specialist Science College in Birmingham, England, a Muslim-dominated school board exerted such pressure on the second-generation British head teacher, who is a Sikh, to replace some courses with Islamic and Arabic studies, segregate boys and girls, and eliminate a citizenship class on democracy and tolerance that he finally quit (“A Sikh Principal, Too English for a Largely Muslim School,” The New York Times, Dec. 8).

In Turkey, students are automatically assigned to state-run religious schools if they do not score well on an admissions test to rigorous secular schools (“Turkey Promotes Religious Schools, Defying Parents,” The New York Times, Dec. 17). In an attempt to raise “a pious generation,” the government has limited the number of secular schools and built more religious institutions.

Although what has happened took place in England and Turkey, I maintain that the same thing could eventually take place here. Public schools are relentlessly attacked for their performance. As a result of the Zelman ruling, what’s to prevent more faith-based schools from being built and inculcating students with intolerance for those who do not share their beliefs? Traditional public schools cannot do this. Why should religious schools be able to do so using taxpayer’s money? At the Saltley School, the controversy is over an agenda to Islamicize education, and in Turkey it is over “imam hatip” (the one who delivers the Friday sermon). But it could be over other religious agendas, as Katherine Stewart documents in The Good News Club (Perseus Books Group, 2012). She explains how this is happening despite the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The latest example is seen in Spring Valley, N.Y. The East Ramapo school board, which is dominated by Orthodox Jews whose children go to private yeshivas, is accused of starving the public schools in favor of the yeshivas (“State Aid Formula Said to Hurt in a District Where Most Go to Yeshivas,” The New York Times, Dec. 14). After an investigation, the monitor for the Board of Regents concluded: “The board appears to favor the interest of private schools over public schools.” A similar situation was reported in 2006 in Lawrence, N.Y. (“At Odds Over Schools,” The New York Times, Sept. 16, 2006).

Readers who say these examples are aberrations have forgotten the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn in April 2011 (“Supreme School Choice,” The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 5, 2011). By a 5-4 vote, the high court upheld Arizona’s dollar-for-dollar tax credit of up to $500 per person or $1,000 per couple for those donating to organizations paying tuition for students attending religious and private schools. Up to 92 percent of the funds went for religious schools’ tuition. The ruling paved the way for similar laws in at least six other states.

Parents have the right to send their children to religious schools, but I do not believe they have the right to do so at public expense. Nevertheless, whether through charitable organizations known as school tuition organizations or other means, the movement will spread.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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