Monday, May 09, 2011

PEARL of Great Price: Public Education and Religious Liberty

by Edd Doerr

Humanists, like most Americans across the religio/philosophical spectrum, support religiously neutral public education and the constitutional principle (federal and state) of separation of church and state that is designed to protect public schools and religious freedom. But this year, 2011, our country faces the most severe challenges ever in this area.

Today, May 9, Wisconsin Gov. (and college dropout) Scott Walker, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, and turncoat former DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee were speaking in Washington before the misnamed American Federation of Children (AFC), a group fronting for the infamous Koch Brothers and the DeVos (Amway) interests. These shadowy radical right outfits are out to defund and wreck public education, undermine the teaching profession, and channel public funds to sectarian and other private schools through vouchers or tuition tax credits. Both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, along with Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, Florida and other states are in the midst of furious political battles over vouchers.

In today's (May 9) Philadelphia Inquirer reporters John Martin and Amy Worden track some of the money being spent to fund these attacks on public education and religious freedom. AFC, mentioned above, poured $3 million into elections last fall. AFC's directors include Carrie Walton Penner of the gazillionaire pro-voucher Wal-Mart empire, Betsy DeVos of the Amway fortune, and Keven Chavous, a former DC councilman. Former Texas congressman Dick Armey's Freedom Works has poured hundreds of thousands into the Pennsylvania voucher effort. These are just the most visible efforts. Catholic Church officials, though unable to quell the ruckus over coverups of clerical sexual abuse, have been pushing for vouchers, ignoring the fact that the overwhelming majority of Catholic parents prefer public schools for their kids.

At least 38 state constitutions forbid tax aid to religious schools, as does the US Constitution, though in recent years the Supreme Court has been moving away from church-state separation, thanks to judicial appointments by Reagan and the two Bushes. Tens of millions of voters have rejected vouchers or their variants in over two dozen statewide referenda from coast to coast by landslide margins (89% to 11% in DC in 1981). The actual referendum results may be found on my web site --

In essence, the argument against vouchers or other gimmicks for using public funds for nonpublic schools is simple. About 90% of private schools are pervasively religious (Catholic, Protestant, fundamentalist, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim). They separate children by religion, class, ethnicity, ideology, ability level, degree of disability. They also generally impose religious tests on teachers. Fragmentation of education would create chaos in our country while raising taxes.

The pro-voucher, anti-religious freedom and big money forces have taken over the party of Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. The other party is struggling for its life. We who value the principles of a progressive Humanism need to work with moderates and progressives across the spectrum to protect our common interests.

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