Many Christian conservatives have complained about our nation’s public schools for more than 50 years. The removal of state-sponsored prayers and devotional Bible readings, and the teaching of scientifically based, comprehensive sex education, evolutionary biology, and a curriculum that encourages students to think for themselves have been cited as evidence that the public schools have been taken over by the forces of secularism.
Public educators have rejected “God’s standard,” so the thinking goes, and have replaced a Christian-based belief and values system with the atheistic religion of “secular humanism.”
This critique of the public schools has a grain of truth to it. In the past several decades, they have become more secularized as they created a more neutral space where no single religious or moral perspective was given privileged position. They have offered a more varied curriculum that reflects U.S. cultural diversity, challenges traditional assumptions about gender roles, and promotes critical thinking about moral and cultural norms. Thus, students might be asked to read literary texts that reflect feminist or homosexual perspectives, or look at episodes in American history through the lenses of Latino, African American, or Asian experiences.
These developments have threatened defenders of traditional, patriarchal Christianity. The public schools’ push for greater tolerance and openness is regarded as an attack on the values of church and home. When one loses long-standing privilege, it often feels like discrimination.
Many Protestant conservatives responded by constructing new private Christian schools — thousands of them — during the past several decades. Some of the fundamentalist schools in the south were clearly “segregationist academies” designed to avoid the court-ordered racial integration of public schools. And school vouchers were proposed as a way to direct public dollars to these schools.
By the 1990s, education “reformers” advocated for privatization schemes to remedy the alleged failures of public education. Many state leaders pushed the ideas of vouchers or privately managed charter schools as a way of funneling public tax dollars to religious schools. And increasing numbers of conservatives opted out of public education entirely, choosing instead to home-school.
In Iowa and across the nation, the Republican drive toward using public moneys to fund private religious schooling through vouchers, education savings accounts, or for-profit charter schools raises serious issues. The degrees of regulation and oversight of religious schools and home schooling vary state by state. In many cases, there is little to no oversight at all. What kind of curriculum are some of these students learning?
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Much home schooling and private religious education has a narrow sectarian character. It indoctrinates students into exclusivist understandings of religion and promotes religious bigotry. While people have a right to hold such beliefs, should they have access to state taxes to propagate them? In the state of Iowa, do we really want public dollars to support religious groups that may teach misinformation that is antagonistic to fellow citizens? Do we want state funding of extremists that preach beliefs that are dangerous to democratic or civil society?
The public schools play a vital role in preparing young people for responsible democratic citizenship. Such citizenship includes developing an understanding of and respect for religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity, and it might require exposure to ideas that are controversial within one’s religious tradition. Through an evidence-based pursuit of knowledge and the free exchange of diverse ideas, young people learn how to become critical thinkers and engage in reasoned discourse, and students from all walks of life feel empowered in the process. Thus public education promotes the public good — a worthy goal of our public dollars.
• Peter Jauhiainen is a professor of religion at Kirkwood Community College specializing in American religious history.