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How You End up Paying for Religious Schools Without Knowing It

Using the language of "choice," school voucher proponents are pushing hard to destroy the separation of church and state in public schools. Here's how they're doing it.

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You can learn a lot about a policy idea by seeing who its friends are. Advocates of voucher programs include the activist organizations of the religious right, such as the Alliance Defense Fund and Focus on the Family. School choice activist Mae Duggan, founder of a voucher front group called Citizens for Educational Freedom, who presided over a 2010 meeting in San Francisco with representatives of over 300 pro-voucher organizations, made the motivation explicit:

"We don't want people teaching humanism. Secular humanism is the basis of the public schools."

Another dose of support comes from the libertarian wing of America's shouty political scene. These are the people who think that government is mysteriously cursed with a Midas touch in reverse – everything it touches turns to waste. Clint Bolick, a member of the Council for National Policy and president and founder of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, quotes his hero Milton Friedman at length describing "government schools" as "a socialist enterprise".

The real money behind the voucher movement, however, comes from real money. Many of the voucher bills passing through state houses are the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or Alec, as well as pro free-market thinktanks such as the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation. These organizations engage in aggressive lobbying efforts in favor of what they call "school reform". They are backed by big oil, Koch Industries, Walmart – the kind of corporate entities that Romney would call "people".

Once upon a time, corporations took an interest in supporting strong universal public education because they understood that the long-term health and competitiveness of the economy depends on an informed and rational citizenry. Some good corporate citizens still hold on to that value system. But they are not the ones driving this bus.

What's in it for the money people? In part, it's about the opportunity to make more money. If the public schools are privatized, someone stands to make a lot from government contracts. A more alarming motive, however, is that some of this money hates public education in the same way that the religious conservatives hate it – though with a twist. The religious conservatives hate the teaching of evolution and other forms of "secularism" they see in every corner of the schoolroom; whereas the corporations behind Alec and Heartland oppose the teaching of climate science. They both support efforts to "teach the controversy" in their areas of concern. It's hard work to get state legislatures to pass bills undermining the teaching of science – though in Tennessee, they've just done that, following the trail blazed by Louisiana. But if you can use vouchers to funnel the money to private schools that have a more convenient opinion on such matters, problem solved – at least, until the earth boils over.

The problem with pretending that you are doing something that you are not is that reality doesn't have to go along with the game. Voucher programs involve the establishment of religion, and they will inevitably bring with them the harms associated with the undue mingling of church and state. Once government vouchers become a major source of funding for religious institutions, can anyone imagine that the government will not use the power of the purse to curtail teachings of schools run by minority religions that may be considered "cults" or "un-American"? Instead, only perceived majority religions will be allowed to exercise the "right" to teach children according to their own conscience.

In the long run, "school choice" means that students and parents will, in effect, have to choose their religion when they choose their education. The government, in turn, will become captive to the influence of those religious sects that move fastest and acquire the largest share of government funds. And many children will miss out on one of the most valuable lessons that schools can teach: how to get along with those who are different.