Tuesday, May 8, 2012

School Vouchers, The New Tribalism and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Readers of my books know that I write about controversial subjects and deliberately confront hypocrisy and double-dealing wherever I may find it, even if it makes you (and me) uncomfortable. At the heart of my patriotism is that Americans are one people united by ideas and virtues, not race, religion, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. These were the ideals on which our nation was founded, and from my perspective, the forming of a more perfect union begins inside of each one of us and in recognition that we are all in this experiment in Self government together.

Yet, not everyone believes this. There appears to be a rising tide of separatism in the United States, and more visible to me is an increased impulse to tribalism in my own neighborhood. Increasingly, people and groups seek to isolate themselves. Instead of looking for common ground, they divide Americans into "us" and "them."

In what should ordinarily be a relatively non-controversial subject - our local schools - the new wedge issue in the political "battleground" state of Colorado is the idea of school choice and vouchers. In Douglas County, Colorado (where I live) the local school board carefully crafted a school voucher proposal designed to legalize the use of public funds to pay for tuition at religious schools, which has driven neighbors apart.

Fixing what isn't broken

Here's a snapshot of the Douglas County School District (DCSD). It is the third largest in Colorado and the 81st largest in the country, serving 59,000 students. DCSD students consistently test in the top 10% in state-wide tests. Our students by and large graduate from high school and then pursue a college degree. Many choose to serve in the military, too. In short, the Douglas County School District (DCSD) is producing bright and motivated young men and women prepared for greater academic achievement and service to their nation. Fiscally, DCSD has a projected $45.5 million surplus for the period ended September 30, 2011. By any common sense measure, an outside observer would describe Douglas County schools as strong and meeting the needs of the community, state and country it serves.

Yet, against this backdrop of scholastic success, a small group of parents feel that they need more choice, not because of failing schools or poor academics, but because they want their kids to receive a religious education paid by taxpayers. Nearly all of the voucher program proponents and those who wanted to enroll in the program want to use public funds to pay for a religious curriculum, specifically fundamentalist Christianity.
To succeed where they have failed before, voucher program advocates and the DCSD school board hired high-priced lawyers that were funded by conservative donors. The pro-voucher attorneys were tasked to craft just "the right" words in an attempt to make the program legal under the state constitution. To get around the funneling of public funds directly to a religious school, a practice already declared unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court, the attorneys instead described the vouchers as "scholarships" paid directly to parents, who could then use the money to pay for a religious education. Despite the considerable time, expense and conflict the Douglas County School Board incurred (by no means are Douglas County voters unanimous on vouchers, one way or the other), the Colorado Supreme Court didn't buy this new packaging of an unconstitutional idea and struck it down.

What is ironic about the pro-voucher movement is that we already have school choice in Douglas County. As a result of the Open Enrollment policy, any student in the county can attend any DCSD school that has space available. So, it is clear that the school board wanted to expand the menu choices to include not just DCSD schools, but also religious schools (an unconstitutional practice). I'll get into why diverting public funds to religious schools is an idea that carries unforeseen risks later in this post.   
And, the DCSD school board is at it again. Undaunted from losing again at the Colorado supreme court, voucher proponents have gone on a media offensive and brought into the county high-profile conservatives (e.g., Dick Morris, former advisor to president Bill Clinton and now a Fox News personality and talk radio personality Hugh Hewitt) to preach to the choir at events that promote vouchers as the solution for a "broken" system. However, based on student performance and the District's strong financial footing, Douglas County schools are far from "broken."

Perhaps some of the persistence to push for public funding of religious and/or private schools can be explained, at least in part, by the outside influences funding the pro-voucher efforts. I suppose the privatization forces believe that Douglas County voters are more conservative than those in other counties and would be more willing to approve a system to divert public funds to private institutions. If approved in Douglas County, then they could apply the same tactic in other districts, some that may in fact need reform. If so, they haven't indicated as much.

Life in Douglas County

For those living outside Douglas County, they might look at our school voucher debate and well wonder — What is going on? A short description of life in Douglas County is in order.  
My wife and I moved to Douglas County about 20 years ago and still live in the same house in which we staked our homestead. We decided to make Douglas County our home for several reasons, including the highly rated school system. We figured it would be a good place to call home and raise our children.

Ours is one of the most, if not the most, affluent counties in the state and one the top in the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Douglas County had the highest median household income of any Colorado county or statistical equivalent in 2000. In 2009, it ranked #7 in the United States in that category - it was one of two in the top 15 areas not in the vicinity of New York or Washington. Okay, so we're well off, but that's because most of my neighbors are generally well-educated professionals. We are engineers, doctors, attorneys, business owners, financial professionals and are otherwise employed in high-skilled occupations (there's even a writer or two among us).

Our family goes to a Christian church down the road and we also like to attend services with our friends at their churches when invited. We consider ourselves strong in our Christian faith, which is not limited to just church. It is during dinners, weekends, hikes and evenings that we often discuss spiritual values with our children and discuss the stories, allegories and lessons found in the Bible and from other influential books. We believe we are holding up our responsibility to teach our children the right-hand path and the way of Christ, in the privacy of our home, in church and in nature.

As a Douglas County resident, our children are products of the DCSD. Our oldest is in college and doing very well. Fortunately, DCSD offered her the opportunity to take AP classes in high school and as a result, she entered college with 12 college credit hours under her belt. Our youngest is still in DCSD and we're very pleased with the majority of his teachers and the opportunities he has for learning (no teacher is "bad," but some are more skilled than others).

But, no school or district is perfect. We know reforms are desperately needed in other school systems. If we were in charge of DCSD for a day, we'd have all our teachers read The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life by Michael Gurian. The lack of religion is not what ails American education; it is that our educational methods haven't kept up with the times.

We're admittedly quiet about our faith. Our relationship with God is an ongoing private conversation, but that doesn't make our relationship with Him any weaker. We strive daily to bring God into our relationships with friends, family, teachers, clients, colleagues and others, but we don't feel the need to advertise our piety or to impose our particular set of religious values on the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists with whom we work and socialize daily. We approach our fellow spiritual brothers and sisters in the world with the recognition that the divine spark is present in each of us, and we build relationships based on the values we have in common, and don't get wrapped-up in our differences (we'll try to remain humble and let the Lord figure it all out at Judgment Day).

Based on our experiences, we don't understand the objection to public schools in Douglas County or the need to use public funds for a religious education. So far, we have yet to come across any teacher or administrator saying or doing anything that is counter to our understanding of Christianity and we can't think of any DCSD policies that impair us or our kids from practicing our faith.

What's really going on - the new tribalism

So what's really going on in Douglas County? Voucher proponents know they can't win on the notions of failed schools or oppression, so they focus on choice. So what's wrong with giving parents the ability to direct the tax monies they pay into the schools they prefer? Is it really about "choice," or is the impulse to separate from the rest of society a germ of something else? Ordinarily, I'd say there's nothing wrong with choice, except the DCSD voucher program is a symptom of a more serious cultural undercurrent that threatens our national unity.

Even if we can't always see their wisdom today, America's Founding Father's recognized the value of a "public good." Public goods are things that we all benefit from, directly and indirectly and even if we don't use or consume it in equal amounts. The most common forms of public goods are infrastructure projects - bridges, roads and canals that facilitate the movement of goods and people across the country. Another public good is the U.S. Postal Service, which at the time of the writing of the Constitution was the then current version of the internet - an efficient means of communication. And, no public good was considered more essential to the new republic than a free education to anyone who wanted it. No longer would only the privileged few and wealthy get an education, the Founders knew that the healthy functioning of our republic required intelligent and literate people.

They were right then, and they still are today. We all benefit from a culture that values education and a system that makes it available to all. Even if you aren't a parent of school-age children, only the most libertarian would suggest that they aren't better off living in a nation where their neighbor's kids have access to a free education that prepares them for college. I am not defending the current system in all respects, reforms are needed, but to weaken public education is a misguided approach and diverting funds to religious institutions holds inherent risks that even the well-meaning voucher proponents don't see (yet).

The Law of Unintended Consequences - religious education and equal protection

I can't help but think that if the diversion of public funds to religious schools via vouchers or any other direct or indirect method, was ever permitted by the courts, then the Law of Unintended Consequences could create some serious risks in our multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-colored society.

For example, if school vouchers are approved, then all faiths and religions would have to be treated equally under the law (the only way such a law could be approved). I used to joke to myself and wonder how school choice proponents, Christian or otherwise, would feel if Wiccan parents decided to create a school in Douglas County for witches and warlocks? Could a Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry be far behind, so long as students could pass the standardized tests? If the proposed lottery system resulted in vouchers awarded going to students who only attend Christian schools, then could a lawsuit be far behind claiming that the lottery is discriminatory because not enough wizards (or other group) received enough scholarships? The entertainment value would be worth it, if the legal bills to the district weren't going to be so high!

Joking aside, there's a serious issue here. Forget about witches, warlocks and government-run schools. What if Islamic fundamentalist parents built a madrasah in Douglas County and then chose to send their kids to a voucher-funded school that taught only memorization of the Koran and that non-Christians must be converted or killed? In many madrasahs, children are programmed through repetition that Jews are followers of the Devil and that infidels (anyone non-Muslim) must be converted or murdered. Vouchers could very well bring the most extreme forms of religious intolerance into our society, right under our noses, legally. I know this is not what pro-choice-for-schools proponents have in mind, but the possibility is a risk not worth taking.

The school voucher movement is indicative of a larger cultural desire to separate into like-minded enclaves and avoid the difficult work of cooperation and compromise needed for a diverse society to survive. By playing to tribal sentiments, our leadership is failing in its responsibility to unify people with our common values. The larger danger is that if leaders continue to lead this way, then America will become divided and weak at precisely the time we need to unite and be strong in a volatile world. We used to trust each other to teach our kids, but now we look at teachers, priests, politicians, business people, doctors, bankers, investors and others with suspicion. Instead of knowing that we've instilled the virtues into our children and then send them forth into society and schools as confident in their faiths, we seek to protect our kids from "them."

Freedom of religion means freedom from the state

It bears mentioning that the Founding Fathers themselves were a diverse group of people, coming from different backgrounds and holding very diverse views on religion and spirituality. Some, like Samuel Adams were very much on the side of bringing religious virtues into the public square while others, namely Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was outright hostile to religion.

Regardless of their background or orientation to religion, the greater objective was the same - to avoid the tragic mistake made in their mother Europe of having religion and the affairs of the church intertwined with politics. The result was that religion was used as a hammer to destroy those who disagreed with the church and as a litmus test for public office or obtaining an education. In the name of "choice," Douglas County school voucher proponents are unknowingly (apparently) pushing us down the slippery slope to the integration of church and state, something our Founders so energetically sought to avoid.

As a Christian, the last thing I want is for public funds to be used to pay for a religious education. I can foresee a time under vouchers, years down the road after we have forgotten the original reasons why we ostensibly approved them, when the state assembly gets into the business of legislating faith. If the golden rule applies - that he who has the gold makes the rules - then vouchers give government a beachhead in our religious institutions. With human nature being what it is it is not too difficult to imagine the temptation for politicians to create a state-approved Bible from which all religious schools accepting state funding have to teach. I want to practice my faith and worship God free from government coercion or intervention. Public funding of religious schools has the potential to breed an entirely new and disturbing mix of religion and politics that our Founding Fathers would find disagreeable at best, traitorous at worst.

In this globalized age, America must continue to lead as free citizens united in the notion that true patriots love their country and their countrymen, rather than devolving into the tribalism, religious exclusion and racism that seems to still have a grip on most of the "rest of the world." America is an exceptional nation, but rolling back the clock to embrace a model our founders specifically disapproved of makes us more like just like everyone else.

Like all things in life, be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

PS - sorry for the long post, but not all things should be reduced down to a sound bite.


Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.