Editorial: Vouch for us
On February 7, at the end of one of the most contentious battles over any of President Trump’s cabinet picks, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the new Secretary of Education. Not only does DeVos lack experience attending, working in, or even sending her children to public schools, but she also has demonstrated a concerning opposition to the separation of education and religion, and has shown a particular partiality for Christian schools.
Growing up, DeVos attended the Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinist sect that explicitly advocates against public schools. She was educated exclusively through private, Christian Reformed institutions, and has since singled out Christian schools as the institutions most worthy of support, praise, and even public funds. When asked whether taxpayer dollars should be allocated to Christian schools, DeVos responded affirmatively, claiming that “there are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education… Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Furthermore, the DeVos family foundation has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Christian organizations that oppose public education, such as Focus on the Family, whose founder urged parents to pull their children out of public schools on the grounds that they teach “anti-Christian nonsense.” The fact that DeVos is a Christian is certainly not a problem, but her subsequent prioritization of Christian schools over schools affiliated with other religions, public schools, and nonreligious schools absolutely is; the government has an obligation to offer students an education, not a religious conversion.
The idea that public education is inherently inferior to private Christian education is extremely concerning in a Secretary of Education, particularly given that DeVos also advocates for a school voucher system. A school voucher is a tax credit or grant of public funds that a family can use to pay tuition in order to send their child to a private school instead of a traditional public or charter school, and is advertised as a saving grace for families living in failing school districts. However, many voucher schools are private religious institutions that are not obligated to offer their students certain constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech, and are not held to any sort of educational standards. Public schools are legally bound to provide a satisfactory education and to protect students’ rights, while voucher schools are free to deprive children of a practical education and have no legal obligation to protect them from discrimination on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, or parental marital status; diverting tax dollars from the former to the latter is absolutely inexcusable.
School choice in general is a popular idea, and the fact that unsafe and underserved public schools exist in our country is certainly cause to experiment with various alternative solutions in order to increase student access to safer schools with greater resources and higher test scores. But most school choice advocates support a variety of free nontraditional educational options, such as charter schools, that are held to state standards and are legally bound to protect students’ rights. A voucher system, on the other hand, would funnel tax dollars into private, and often religious, schools that are held accountable neither for the education they provide nor for the way they treat their students. If vouchers are regarded by the government as an acceptable substitute for a traditional public school or high-performing charter schools, public funds and attention will be turned away from both, forcing some families to choose between a failing public school or a nearby private school that may subscribe to religious doctrines that are at odds with the family’s values, fail to give their child a practical education, or even refuse to educate their child for discriminatory reasons. School voucher systems therefore rob children of the opportunity to which they are legally entitled: to attend a free public school. The Secretary of Education should be fighting for this right, not dismantling it.
Unsigned editorials reflect the general opinion of the staff and not the opinion of any single editor.
Feb. 22, 2017