Point of View

NC voucher applications show pitfalls of using public money for private schools

May 21, 2014 

Without explanation, the N.C. Supreme Court has given a green light to legislators and the governor to move forward with implementing North Carolina’s school voucher program. But before lawmakers rush to write a $10 million check that will end up in the coffers of private, mainly religious, schools, they should use the short legislative session to take a fresh look at how the law will actually be implemented come August.

The transfer of public tax dollars to private religious schools touches bedrock principles of religious freedom found in the First Amendment. Freedom of religion is central to our identity as a free people. Yet the right to religious liberty is not secure when the government becomes intertwined with religion. And when state government uses tax dollars intended to benefit all citizens to indoctrinate children in religious belief, the wall between church and state is severely breached.

Schools do not exist simply to benefit parents. They serve to educate future generations, to create an educated citizenry and workforce, and to ensure that citizens can fully participate in a democratic society. Education is a public good supported by all taxpayers, including those who do not have school-aged children. This social value is recognized by our public school and compulsory education laws.

We now have a better picture of where tax dollars will go and how they will be spent when the voucher law hits full stride. We know that there have been 5,552 applications submitted to receive a $4,200 voucher. We also know that the large majority of private schools selected by parents are religious schools.

The two schools with the largest number of voucher applicants are religious schools:

• Victory Christian Center School in Charlotte – 98 applications

• Al-Iman School in Raleigh – 86 applications

Because not all voucher applications will be selected, a lottery will be necessary to determine which students receive a voucher. But assuming that 50 percent of the applications are approved for each school, the magnitude of public funding going to these schools is apparent. If 49 of its voucher applications are approved, Victory Christian Center School will receive $205,800 in taxpayer funds. Al-Iman’s share will be $180,600 assuming 43 students receive vouchers.

What is the educational philosophy of these and other religious schools that will receive public dollars? What will they teach voucher students? Will there be any separation between public funds and religious indoctrination? The websites of the two schools are instructive.

Victory Christian Center School’s website states: “We believe that the use of the Bible is paramount in the development of strong character. We believe in having a strong academic program with subjects being taught from a Biblical perspective. We believe that the Holy Spirit is The One True Teacher; therefore, it is necessary to have a Christian staff that prays and is led by the Spirit.”

Al-Iman School states that the school’s mission is “guided by the Qur’an.” “Through the teaching of Islamic and scholastic courses,” it prepares students “to achieve excellence in education and a strong Muslim identity.”

These are not isolated cases. Most religious schools likely to receive vouchers have similar religious missions and philosophies of education.

To be sure, all parents have the right to practice their own religious beliefs and to pass those beliefs on to their children. And all parents have the right to educate their child at a private or religious school of their choosing so long as it is at their own expense. But when public dollars are used to support the teaching and indoctrination of religion, as will surely be the case under the voucher law, the boundary separating church and state is crossed.

I don’t believe the majority of North Carolinians want their tax dollars spent on religious instruction and indoctrination of children. That is the proper role for parents and our centers of faith.

Policymakers still have time to stop this misguided law from taking effect. Let’s hope they do so.

Gregory Malhoit is a retired clinical law professor at N.C. Central University.

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