Tuesday, August 14, 2012
If you're not up on Louisiana's new voucher system, let me start by filling in a few details. The voucher program is supposed to expand parental choice as to which schools their kids can go to. A parent who wants to send his or her child to a private school can get a voucher for a fixed amount from the state. The parent can give the voucher to the school in payment or partial payment for tuition, and the school can redeem the voucher for cash from the state. While schools have to be approved to participate in the program, the requirements and process for approval remain poorly defined. It is clear, however, that public funds are now going to private schools, some of the religious. (Please note: there isn't an actual paper voucher used by parents.)
I'm interested in this issue because I was simply flabbergasted by what I saw in the textbooks some of the religious schools use. I suspect most people imagine, as I did, that religious schools used the same books as secular schools to teach math, science, or history, adding separate courses on religion to the secular curriculum. That is the case with some religious schools, but certainly not all. Some are choosing to use textbooks that insert religious dogma into all subjects. Their science books have good science in them, but they also have bad science in them, and some material that isn't science at all, but pure religious dogma.
This morning (August 14th), I managed to attend a meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), which was at least partially about that approval process. I was the only member of the public to speak on this agenda item. I pointed out that some schools were subordinating their entire curriculum to religious objectives, using textbooks that insert dogma into non-religious subjects such as science and social studies. Far from "teaching the controversy," or presenting both sides of the Creation-Evolution debate, some textbooks teach only a straw-man version of Evolution that is easily undermined. Some books go so far as to say that belief in Evolution is what Satan wants, that science can not produce truth, or that any belief that contradicts the Bible must be wrong. I emphasized that these claims are not being made in the religion curriculum, but are embedded in books that are supposed to be about science.
I specifically asked that all private schools applying to participate in the voucher program be required to file documents specifying exactly which textbooks are used for which subjects and grades. I also asked that these documents be posted to BESE's website so taxpayers and parents can see what their tax dollars are underwriting and see what educational content their children are being subjected to. I also asked BESE to vet the identified textbooks, developing a list of books that would disqualify a school from the voucher program, if used outside of a course on religion. I emphasized that none of these proposals would restrict in any way what a private school teaches or which textbooks they use. These proposals would only restrict how tax dollars are spent.
I could not read the reaction of the Board members, which was mostly polite, but silent. I suspect that most were unaware of the details of the content of some of these textbooks. Only one Board member asked me a question, which allowed me to provide some examples of how these books teach a straw-man version of Evolution in place of actual scientific theory. I was able to meet with him briefly to share copies of pages from some of the texts. While I hope to be able to follow up with him, it is far from certain that any action will be taken.
I suspect that public funding for such mis-education is not gong to go away by itself. Taxpayers are going to have make noise about it. We need to educate both BESE and the public about poor quality of content in some private, religious schools. Above all, BESE needs to hear from more taxpayers who oppose this abuse of public funds.