The Freedom From Religion Foundation denounces the Trump administration’s recent multipronged attack on the separation of state and church in public education.
The proposed new federal budget contains $5 billion in tax credits for private school education. And Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has nixed a stipulation that forbids federal money from being funneled to religious groups via private schools.
Voucher and tax credit programs create a host of problems. The lack of oversight of voucher schools encourages widespread fraud and mismanagement. Taxpayers cut the checks to such schools, yet have no say in how they are run. Because private schools receiving vouchers are not subject to the safeguards required for public schools, abuses are rife, such as lack of safe playing spaces, adequate lunches and textbooks.
Such schemes are a cynical way of funneling public funds to religious schools, as FFRF has repeatedly pointed out. In the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, for instance, virtually all of the schools registered to participate in the 2017-18 school year were religious schools. In Indiana and North Carolina, it has been a comparable story.
The National Coalition of Public Education has published a critique of a recent bill, introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and backed by DeVos, that’s similar to the tax credits proposal in the budget. Echoing many of FFRF’s longstanding criticisms, the coalition says that such schemes undermine public schools, allow for broad, unaccountable use of taxpayer funds, exempt the recipient schools from civil rights laws and do not improve academic achievement.
Instead of changing course in the face of such realities, DeVos is doubling down on her unconstitutional proclivities, as can be seen in her recent directive.
“DeVos announced Monday that she will no longer enforce a provision in federal law that bars religious organizations from providing federally funded educational services to private schools,” the New York Times reports. “The move comes after the 2017 Supreme Court decision, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. V. Comer, in which the high court found that Missouri had unconstitutionally engaged in religious discrimination when it denied a church-run preschool publicly funded tire scraps for its playground.”
DeVos is using the narrow Trinity Lutheran ruling to broadly give free rein to religious institutions of higher learning. She’s also targeting state-level “Blaine Amendments,” rules that rightly prohibit taxpayer money from subsidizing churches, ministers and religious organizations.
This isn’t all that surprising, given DeVos’ background. A billionaire and political donor, she worked for more than a decade on political efforts to fund private religious schools with taxpayer money. In 2000, she unsuccessfully bankrolled a campaign to repeal Michigan's constitutional protections that prevent taxpayer money from going to religious entities. In remarks made in 2001 to a gathering of uberwealthy Christians, she described her mission to “advance God's Kingdom.” She derided public schools for replacing churches as the focus of local community and talked of her crusade on behalf of religious schools in language straight out of the Old Testament, naming it a “Shephelah,” a Hebrew term referring to an area where battles were fought in the Old Testament.
Secretary DeVos is on a dangerous calling: to subvert public schools and to advance religious education — while she’s in charge of this country’s education system, no less. This is highly alarming, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation will spare no effort in pushing back against her zealous mission.