News & Politics

Trump's 'School Choice' Plan: Religious Fundamentalism at Taxpayer Expense

Religious curricula funded by tax-credit school vouchers have become a cash cow for many private schools.

Photo Credit: Greg Swan / Flickr

President Donald Trump is being praised for a change in tone in his recent address to Congress, but his belligerent attitude toward public education hasn’t changed a bit.

While it’s true he stopped short of repeating his claims that public schools are “broken” and a “government monopoly,” what Trump chose to highlight in his remarks about public schools was a story about a student who left them.

During his education remarks, Trump called out a guest of his in the audience, Denisha Merriweather, who, he says, “struggled in school and failed third grade twice. But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, with the help of a tax credit scholarship program. Today, she is the first in her family to graduate, not just from high school, but from college. Later this year she will get her masters degree in social work.”

Education writers were quick to jump on Trump’s shout-out to speculate that an education tax-credit proposal, like the one Merriweather took advantage of in Florida, would be just the sort of plan Trump would try to push through Congress.

“One of the easiest ways Trump could make good on his promise to expand [school choice],” writes Emma Brown for the Washington Post, “is to create a federal tax credit that incentivizes corporations to donate to state programs such as Florida’s. Such a credit could be embedded in a broader tax code overhaul that would need a simple majority in Congress to pass.”

Brown’s report tells you something about how these tax-credit programs work – they give individuals and corporations tax breaks when they donate to nonprofits which then distribute the money in the form of scholarships to private schools. But she doesn’t describe the school Merriweather transferred to and what type of education the public’s money ultimately paid for.

Some would ask, “Does it matter what kind of school Merriweather attended?” True, Merriweather’s story is admirable, and she should be commended for her accomplishments.

But whenever public money is involved, the interests of the common good, not just the fortunes of a single person, must be considered. And while Merriweather certainly benefited from an education tax-credit program, it would be dangerous to project her success story into a public policy intended for all children nationwide.

Poster Person for Privatization?

First, it should be noted this is hardly the first time Merriweather’s story has been used to tout tax-credit scholarship programs.

Merriweather is not simply an industrious student. She’s also a frequent contributor and presenter for Step Up For Students, the state-approved nonprofit in Florida that helps administer the education tax-credit program she benefitted from. According to her profile at the Step Up website, she has been featured prominently in this organization’s communications outreach since 2008. Although she isn’t listed as staff of Step Up, she has been employed as an intern.

Over the past three years, Merriweather has had the opportunity to tell her story in numerous media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, The Hill, the Tampa Bay Times, and The 74 (a pro school choice media site funded by charter school and voucher advocates such as the Walton Family Foundation and the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation). She’s also been the subject of pro school choice profiles in politically conservative news outlets. And after Merriweather was highlighted at Trump’s speech, she was interviewed by Fox News.

None of this is to take away from the sincerity of Merriweather’s writing or the validity of her lived experience. But it needs to be noted that few public school students have had such prominent venues to repeatedly tell their success stories.

Further, the school Merriweather attended through the school choice program Trump champions is no ordinary school.

Religious Fundamentalism at Taxpayer Expense

The private school Merriweather attended and graduated from is the Esprit De Corps Center for Learning in Jacksonville which she has described in testimony she gave last year to a U.S. House Committee as “a church based school, a church that I actually attended.”

According to the Esprit de Corps website, the “vision for the school was birthed from the mind of God in the heart of Dr. Jeannette C. Holmes-Vann, the Pastor and Founder of Hope Chapel Ministries, Inc.” The education philosophy guiding the school is based on “a return to a traditional educational model founded on Christian principles and values. In accordance with this vision, each component of the school was purposefully selected and designed.”

A significant “component” of the Esprit de Corps school is its adherence to a fundamentalist Christian curriculum. Its official listing in a Jacksonville directory of private schools describes its education program as a “spiritual emphasis and biblical [sic] view, which permeates the A-Beka curriculum.”

“A Beka is one of the most widely used K-12 curriculum series for home schooling and private Christian schools,” Rachel Tabachnick explains to me in an email. “This includes many private schools receiving public dollars through voucher and tax-credit programs.”

Tabachnick has collected textbooks used by voucher and corporate tax-credit schools for over ten years, including curriculum from A Beka Book and Bob Jones University Press.

In an investigative article for AlterNet in 2011, Tabachnick writes, “Throughout the K-12 curriculum, A Beka consistently presents the Bible as literal history and science. This includes teaching young earth creationism and demeaning other religions and other Christian faiths including Roman Catholicism.”

An A Beka history text she reviews teaches that “socialist propaganda” exaggerated the Great Depression “so that Franklin Delano Roosevelt could pass New Deal legislation” and that the Vietnam War “divided the country into the ‘hawks who supported the fight against Communism, and doves, who were soft on Communism.'”

Tabachnick quotes a fourth-grade A Beka text that celebrates President Ronald Reagan’s presidency under a banner of “A Return to Patriotism and Family Values.” In describing President Bill Clinton’s administration, an A Beka high school history text calls First Lady Hilary Clinton’s effort to overhaul health care a “plan for socialized medicine” and describes Vice President Al Gore as “known for his radical environmentalism.”

Christ Is History, Africans Are Inferior

In her emails to me, Tabachnick shares excerpts from a newer edition of A Beka’s textbook on “History and Civil Government” that teaches, “The first advent of Jesus Christ to earth – His incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension – is the focal point of history. History began with God and His act of Creation. It climaxed with God’s act of redemption.” (emphasis original)

In the current edition of A Beka’s 10th grade history text “World History and Cultures in Christian Perspective” Tabachnick shares with me, “modern liberalism” is described as “the desire to be free from absolute standards and morals, especially the Scriptures.”

From this text, high school students like Denisha Merriweather learn, “The beginning of the 20th century witnessed a cultural breakdown that threatened to destroy the very roots of Western civilization. The cause of this dissolution was the idea or philosophy known as liberalism.” (emphasis original)

The curriculum used by Esprit de Corps also taught Merriweather and her African American classmates about the innate inferiority of the African continent and its people.

“The textbooks teach the narrative that the people of African nations descended from Noah’s son Ham and that Ham’s descendant Nimrod led the rebellion against God by building the Tower of Babel,” Tabachnick tells me. This Biblically supported lesson is often referred to as “the curse of Ham,” which has historically been a primary justification for slavery among Southern Christians, according to numerous sources.

In the A Beka text “History and Civil Government,” Adam and Eve are referred to as “the parents of humanity” and racial variations in human kind are described as the result of “recessive traits” due to “(1) a rapidly changing environment, (2) a small population, (3) and extensive inbreeding.”

“Current A Beka texts also falsely claim that only ten percent of the population of Africa is literate and that literacy rates may drop further because of communists shutting down mission schools,” Tabachnick tells me.

A Realistic View?

On its company website, A Beka claims its textbooks teach “a realistic view of time, government, geography, and economics based on eternal truths.”

Of course, parents can decide for themselves if this is the kind of “realistic view” they want their children to learn. But why should taxpayer money pay for it?

According to a 2015 report in the Orlando Sentinel, Florida’s tax-credit school voucher programs, including the one Merriweather took advantage of, have become a cash cow for many of the state’s private schools – sending out about $544 million to families of nearly 100,000 students in the state.

Of the roughly 2,300 private schools in Florida, more than 1,500 accept voucher money, and of these voucher-accepting schools, about 45 percent rely on them for at least half of their students. About 70 percent of these schools are religiously affiliated, “including some where religion is a central focus.”

Now, Trump wants to roll that out nationwide.

Jeff Bryant is director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America's Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. He has written extensively about public education policy.
 
 

 

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