Point of view

The problems with NC vouchers and sending public money to private schools

July 8, 2014 



I’ve been a United Methodist preacher since 1952. All that time I have been married to the love of my life, who spent all of her working years teaching in the public schools of North Carolina. My daddy was a preacher and my granddaddy and my great-granddaddy and his daddy and my five brothers were all preachers. My forebears planted tobacco and have preached the Gospel in Eastern North Carolina since well before the Civil War.

I believe that America is a God-centered nation – we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, after all. But to give tax dollars to private religious academies is wrong.

The 2013 decision by the General Assembly to provide public tax dollars in the form of vouchers to private, selective academies violates the N.C. Constitution as well as the U.S. Constitution; the former says plainly enough that public school money is exclusively for public schools.

Virtually all of the schools cited on voucher applications thus far are private religious academies. Two of the top three applicants are in Raleigh, including the Al Iman School and the Raleigh Christian School. Most of the rest are private Christian schools. They want public money but have no intention of admitting the public to their schools. Will the Islamic academies take Christian students? Will the Christian academies accept Islamic or Jewish pupils? Will any of these small religious academies have the resources to accommodate mentally or physically challenged students – the same ones who are welcomed with open arms at our public schools every morning? If Christian identity schools pop up that preach white supremacy, will they get public tax dollars, too?

Don’t get me wrong. I fully support the right of every religious institution to instruct children however it sees fit, even if I disagree with some of its tenets. That is part of our core identity as Americans. None of them, however, has any right to taxpayer dollars.

Most of our Founding Fathers believed in God. But they all believed in religious freedom. There would be no Church of the United States. There would be no official state religion. This was enshrined in the Constitution and based in part on the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson. The state cannot get in the religion business.

Nor can the church afford to be ruled by the state. We believe in the one Golden Rule, but we also know about the other – that he who has the gold makes the rules. Churches should take neither money nor dictation from the principalities of this world. This school voucher law is a threat to religion as much as endorsing one religion or another is a threat to the Constitution.

But the best reason to oppose school vouchers is because they drain millions of tax dollars from our cash-strapped public schools. We have not yet financed our public schools as fully as they deserve. Apparently we cannot afford even inadequate funding for our public schools. This is no time to be supporting yet another school system, especially one that so clearly violates our state and federal constitutions. It is unethical and immoral to take tax dollars from public schools and hand them over to unaccountable private corporations that don’t have to accept everybody, obey public school standards, provide a lunch room or a library, or care for special needs students.

Why should your son lose his best teacher because North Carolina can’t afford to pay her a salary she can live on? Why should your daughter’s favorite teacher leave because our schools can’t match Georgia after we’ve written so many no-strings attached checks to private schools? Why should your second-grader lose a teaching assistant so that we can buy books for the local Islamic school or provide creationist science texts for your town’s “Christ-centered” academy?

I am grateful that we have been endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. In North Carolina, those rights include a sound basic education in a system of free, equal, tax-supported public schools. And our Constitution stipulates that public money for education must be spent exclusively for that high public purpose.

The Rev. Vernon C. Tyson lives in Raleigh.

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