For a minute or two, I thought that the Washington Post was going to publish a fair-minded news feature about the complex issues involved in “school choice” legislation.
Alas, it soon became clear that this was another business-as-usual piece that was, for the most part, committed to featuring the voices of activists on one side of the story — period. The story also avoided a key church-state legal term that is shaping recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings on this subject.
Thus, it’s time — once again — for readers to grab some highlighter pens. Hold that thought.
You can sense what’s going on in the headline: “More states are paying to send children to private and religious schools.”
Ah, but private schools are private schools, too. Some are secular, some are openly religious. Some of the religious schools are on the left, in terms of doctrine, and some are on the right. But they are all “private” schools. Are all private schools created equal? Did the Post team “get” this angle of the story and include some diversity in the sourcing?
The bottom line: What we have here is another one of those “highlighter pen” stories that GetReligion digs into every now and then. What readers need to do is print a copy of the story and then grab three pens with different colors — maybe red, blue and some variation on purple. The goal is to mark quotes representing voices on the cultural left, right and, maybe, even in the middle.
But first, here is how the story opens:
For years, school-choice advocates toted up small victories in their drive to give parents taxpayer money to pay for private school. Now, Republican-led states across the country are leaving the limitations of the past behind them as they consider sweeping new voucher laws that would let every family use public funds to pay for private school.
Last year, Arizona created what activists consider a model program: Every child who forgoes public school for private programs, including religious schools, is eligible for a taxpayer-funded payment worth $7,000 — almost as much as the state sends to public schools per student.
In January, Iowa and Utah followed suit, creating their own universal programs. GOP governors in Arkansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Oklahoma have listed these programs among their top priorities for 2023. In other states, Republican lawmakers are pushing the same.
Now, what do those states have in common? For the most part, they are conservative or battleground states.
This brings us the key church-state chunk of the story, including a reference to trends at SCOTUS. Read this carefully:
… (T)he plans are run by the state, with direct appropriations. They are open to anyone, and the money can pay for tuition or other expenses, a huge benefit to home-schooling families. Calling these programs “scholarships” and now “education savings accounts,” or ESAs, also allows advocates to avoid the word “vouchers,” a term that grew politically unpopular in some quarters.
Yes, not the term “vouchers” — which the Post editors used, with no comment, in the lede.
Let’s keep reading, because it’s time to preach:
The new measures upend the traditional notion that schools accepting tax money should be subject to the same government rules that public schools face, such as student testing and accountability measures. They also continue to break down barriers between church and state.
At one time, courts barred the use of taxpayer money for religious schools, but the Supreme Court has shifted course over decisions, including one last summer that said Maine had to include religious schools in a small private school voucher program. The ruling seemed to open the door to voucher programs that include parochial education.
Opponents see nothing less than an attack on the very institution of public education.
Ah. What SCOTUS said was that a government aid program that allowed parents to choose secular or, in practice, religiously liberal private schools also should be open to parents that want to choose a more traditional religious private school. If the state is going to get entangled with private schools, the state should not say that some secular/religious views are acceptable and some are not.
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