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David Berliner: Why Religious Schools Should Never Receive a Dollar of Public Funding

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Since the 2020 election, when Republicans won many seats in state legislatures, there has been an explosion of proposed voucher laws, to allow people to get public money to pay for religious schools. David Berliner, one of our nation’s most distinguished researchers of education, explains why funding religious schools with public money is a terrible idea.

Why Religious Schools Should Never Receive a Dollar of Public Funding

David C. Berliner

Regents’ Professor Emeritus

Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College

Arizona State University

I believe in separation of church and state. I think it has done the United States a lot of good to honor Jefferson’s metaphoric and aspirational “wall” between the two. I also believe that money corrupts too many people and too many institutions. Holding those two beliefs simultaneously means 1.) I never want to see any local, state, or federal money used to aide any religious group, and 2.) I don’t want to see any religious group, or affiliated religious organizations, donating to the campaigns of public officials. The latter may be impossible to stop in an era of “dark money.” But the former—government support of religious institutions– is almost always done in public view and is worth stopping now, immediately, as it could easily damage our fragile republic.

Overstated? Hardly! Read on! Few citizens pay attention to the expenditure of public dollars for support of religious schools, but it occurs frequently. It can cost citizens billions of dollars annually, and ends up supporting some horrible things. A contemporary example of this is the criteria for entrance to the Fayetteville Christian School in North Carolina. 

Fayetteville Christian School (FCS) are recipients, in a recent school year, of $495,966 of public money. They get this in the form of school vouchers that are used by students and their families to pay for the students’ religious schooling. The entrance requirements for this school, and other religious schools like it, are quite frightening to me, though clearly acceptable to North Carolinians. From their website, in 2020:1

“The student and at least one parent with whom the student resides must be in agreement with (our) Statement of Faith and have received Jesus Christ as their Savior. In addition, the parent and student must regularly (go to) a local church. (We) will not admit families that belong to or express faith in religions that deny the absolute Deity/Trinity of Jesus Christ as the one and only Savior and path to salvation. …. FCS will not admit families that engage in behaviors that Scripture defines as deviate and sin (illicit drug use, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality (LGBT), etc.)

Once admitted, if the student or parent/guardian with whom the student resides becomes involved in lifestyles contradictory to Biblical beliefs, we may choose to dis-enroll the student/family from the school.” 

So, despite the receipt of public money, the Fayetteville Christian School is really notopen to the public at all! This school says, up front and clearly, that it doesn’t want and will not accept Jews, Muslims, Hindu’s, and many others. Further, although supported by public money, it will expel students for their family’s alleged “sins”. Is papa smoking pot? Expelled! Does your sibling have a homosexual relationship? Out! Has mama filed for divorce? You are gone! The admissions and dismissal policies of this school–receiving about a half million dollars of public funds per yearare scandalous. I’d not give them a penny! North Carolina legislators, and the public who elects them, should all be embarrassed to ever say they are upholders of American democracy. They are not. 

Besides the anti-democratic admission and retention problems in many religious schools, Christian or otherwise, some have serious curriculum problems as well. Those curriculum problems actually terrify me when they occur in publicly supported religious schools. With public money–my money–many of these schools spread ideas that are objectively/scientifically untrue. And some are simply repugnant! 

Do you remember Bobby Jindal? A few years back, Jindal was Governor of Louisiana and even, for a short time, a candidate for president of the United States of America. He pushed hard for publicly supported charter and voucher schools. The curriculum materials in these schools frequently came from one of two sources: Bob Jones University Press (associated with the scandal-ridden university), or from A Beka Book, a publisher of Christian books (now called Abeka). Between them, with the public’s money, these publishers have taught our youth some amazing things, as reported either by Deanna Panor by Alice Greczyn.3

Pan and Greczyn share some very interesting text excerpts. For example, I never learned from the textbooks in my public school that “The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well.” Nor did I ever imagine that “To help them endure the difficulties of slavery, God gave Christian slaves the ability to combine the African heritage of song with the dignity of Christian praise. Through the Negro spiritual, the slaves developed the patience to wait on the Lord and discovered that the truest freedom is from the bondage of sin.”

I also didn’t know that “The Ku Klux Klan in, some areas of the country, tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. Klan targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians.”

I admit that I didn’t exactly get an “A” in my high school algebra course, but I never thought that abstract algebra was too complicated to learn. Perhaps I was wrong. An A Beka book states that “Unlike the ‘modern math’ theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Book teaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute…A Beka Book provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory.” (Italics mine.)

Another analyst of Christian school text books, Rachel Tabachnick,4 also informed me of things I never suspected. I simply never knew that “Global environmentalists have said and written enough to leave no doubt that their goal is to destroy the prosperous economies of the world’s richest nations.” This quote is from Economics: Work and Prosperity in Christian Perspective, 2nd ed., A Beka Book, 1999.

Through Tabachnick I also learned that children receiving their education in some Christian schools supported with public money are informed that gay people “have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists.” That quote is from the Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, 1998-1999, Bob Jones University Press, 1998.

         Writing in Salon Magazine, Wilson5 documents other outrageous claims made in these curricula materials, some of which are purchased with public money for Christian schools in the USA, although these curriculum materials are in use throughout the world:

  • Only ten percent of Africans can read or write, because Christian mission schools have been shut down by communists.
  • God used the ‘Trail of Tears’ to bring many Indians to Christ.
  • It cannot be shown scientifically that man-made pollutants will one day drastically reduce the depth of the atmosphere’s ozone layer.
  • God has provided certain ‘checks and balances’ in creation to prevent many of the global upsets that have been predicted by environmentalists.
  • The Great Depression was exaggerated by propagandists, including John Steinbeck, to advance a socialist agenda. 
  • Unions have always been plagued by socialists and anarchists who use laborers to destroy the free-enterprise system that hardworking Americans have created.

Religious schools should not be subject to much state oversight—I understand that. But many such schools claim to offer curriculum compatible with neighboring public schools, thus allowing their students to move to the public schools should they or their parents request that. For example, it is not uncommon for students in Christian schools to transfer at 6th or 9thgrade to a traditional, public junior or senior high. Or, with a high school degree after years of private Christian education, a student might seek admission to a public college. Since student transfers like these are common, shouldn’t there be more inspection and approval of the curriculum and instruction in private Christian schools? Shouldn’t Christian schools, or Jewish or Islamic or any other school receiving public money, be inspected regularly by some agency of the government so they can be certified not to be teaching anti-democratic, anti-scientific, and anti-communitarian values? We have enough strife in this country without paying for schools whose values and curriculum are antithetical to our increasingly secular democracy. 

Am I overreaching? Although ordinarily private schools should not be subject to public scrutiny, if they accept public funds and if they are teaching age-inappropriate or anti-democratic content to their students shouldn’t the public know? Shouldn’t all public funds be subject to some kind of public audit? 

         For example, Rawls6 cites an adult whose memory of sixth grade instruction in a Christian school was still quite vivid. The teacher “passed around shocking photographs of dismembered babies to teach about abortion.” Sometimes abortion in Christian schools is compared to the holocaust. Other times elementary school students have been taken to local and state abortion protests, even to national events in Washington DC. Some schools regularly take their students to abortion clinics to protest. Are public expenditures for curriculum materials and activities like were just cited appropriate? Shouldn’t we know what is taught and learned in schools supported by public funds?     

Naturally, as part of their anti-abortion campaign, many Christian schools worry a lot about sex. So, they pass along unsubstantiated claims about condom failure and the horrible and life-long consequences of sex outside of marriage. It is often public money that supports curriculum and instruction of this type. Should that be the case? Should the state, often with comingled federal funds, support schools with anti-abortion programs when many state courts, and the Supreme Court, has ruled that abortion is legal? I have absolutely no issues with debate about abortion issues in upper grade levels, but should schools be providing anti-abortion education for our youth with public funds? 

Pregnancy, as might be expected, is often greeted with expulsion for girls at Christian schools. I certainly don’t know anyone who recommends teen parenthood, but if it occurs, shouldn’t the mother be helped, not thrown out of school? Wouldn’t that be the Christian thing to do? 

To accommodate the fact of teen motherhood, a public high school I visited proudly showed me a classroom-cum-nursery, allowing teen mothers a safe place to leave their infants while attending classes to earn their high school diplomas. In fairness, one might ask if that is a proper role of a public school. I believe, as do many Americans, that preparation for successful adulthood is the mission of our public schools—even if it entails these kinds of accommodations to keep youth in school and help them to graduate.7

         Another curriculum question is this: Is it appropriate for American education to promote lessening tensions between nations and religions? I think so. But public funds support Christian schools that teach “[T]he darkness of Islamic religion keeps the people of Turkey from Jesus Christ as their savior.” They teach that “[O]ver 500 people saw the resurrected Jesus Christ, [but] no one witnessed Mohammed’s supposed encounters with the angels.” And they teach that Islam is “fanatically anti-Christian.” 3 

         Finally, I want to point out the almost unanimous call to end corporal punishment of minors by the UN and by psychologists and other social scientists. Because of this I ask, should public money be used to support schools that still engage in corporal punishment? Sadly, both Christian and public schools, particularly in the Southern United States, approve of and still engage in spanking, or “paddling.”8

Although physical punishment of children has not disappeared in contemporary times, it appears to be more prevalent in Christian schools than in public schools because many of them operate on the principle of “spare the rod spoil the child.” Codes of conduct for many Christian schools say it is their obligation to use physical punishment, citing Proverbs 23: 13 and 14, among other biblical sources. There they are told “do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul…” 

Thus the “rod,” switch, or paddle, along with other harsh punishments to ensure proper child rearing, is recommended in many Christian advice books for Christian parents.So it is not surprising that more physical abuse takes place in fundamentalist Christian schools than in public schools. For example, in 2007, a Chicago Christian school was sued for injury and surgical costs after forcing a 14-year-old boy to kneel in place for nine days, causing a hip injury. In 2011, a Christian school teacher in Orlando was arrested on charges of beating a boy at her home with a rusted broom handle.6 And in 2015, at the Christian based Zarephath Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, a cell phone video shows male students holding down a female student, while her teacher paddled her in front of the whole class. The horrible offence the student committed? Running in the cafeteria!10

         Conclusion: There are certainly debates to have about the admissions and retention policies, qualifications of teachers, and especially the curricula used in all our schools—public, private, charter, religious or secular. We, the American people, settle controversial debates about issues like these in public forums. We rely on an open press, and we settle these debates through citizen voting and in our courts. Public oversight of public funds is part of the American tradition. 

Frequently, oversight of public funding is carried out by inspector generals. In fact, the first inspector general of the USA was appointed, in part, because General Washington had an ill-trained army for the task he had ahead. So, our very first inspector general was charged with identifying an educational problem, and asked to rapidly fix it! 

Now, literally thousands of people work for various offices of federal, state, and (occasionally) municipal inspector generals. Each are typically responsible for identifying fraud, waste, abuse, and criminal activity involving public funds, programs, and operations. But outside of the federal government, few inspector generals are devoted to education, even though roughly 45 percent of all state budgets, and 45 percent of all local budgets are used to support educational activities11. Thus, there is little oversight of how educational dollars are spent, and some of that spending has turned out to be scandalous!12 Just as bad, I think, is that there is even less concern about what is taught and what is learned in secular charter and private schools, or religious schools, that receive public money. This is not how it should be. I certainly would rest easier if there were inspectors spending a bit more time in the field overseeing what is taught and what is learned in our schools, in addition to their worries about how public money is spent. In particular, we need to examine religious institutions receiving public funds, so that the public has the information needed to maintain Jefferson’s wall, as best we can. 

In fact, if I made law, I would see to it that no private school– religious or not—ever received a dime of public money! Such schools can too easily sow seeds of separateness, privilege and dissension, hindering the achievement of one of our nations most cherished goals: e pluribus unum. Out of our many, one!

1.   Fayetteville Christian Church, Admissions. Retrieved February 8, 2021 from https://www.fayettevillechristian.com/copy-of-criteria-1

2.   Pan, D. (2012, August 7). 14 Wacky “Facts” Kids Will Learn in Louisiana’s Voucher Schools. Retrieved February 13, 2021 from https:/www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2012/08/photos-evangelical-curricula-louisiana-tax-dollars

3. Greczyn, A. (2020, Blog of June 7). Christianity’s Role in American Racism: An Uncomfortable Look at the Present and the Past.

Retrieved February 2, 2021 from https://www.alicegreczyn.com/blog/christianitys-role-in-american-racism

4. Tabachnick, R. (2017, January17) Vouchers/Tax Credits Funding Creationism, Revisionist History, Hostility Toward Other Religions. Talk to Action. Retrieved February 18, 2021 from: http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/5/25/84149/9275

5. Wilson, B. (2012, June 19). Shocking Christian school textbooks:Thousands of Louisiana students will receive state voucher money to attend religious schools. What will they learn? Retrieved February 7, 2021 from: https://www.salon.com/2012/06/19/shocking_christian_school_textbooks_salpart/

6. Rawls, K. (2015, January 12). 10 Frightening Things Happening at Conservative Christian Schools That May Be Funded With Your Tax Dollars. AlterNet. Retrieved January 29, 2021 from https://www.alternet.org/2015/01/10-frightening-things-happening-conservative-christian-schools-may-be-funded-your-tax/

7. It is worth noting here that public schools frequently do spend our public money counseling such students and their families, while private schools frequently do not. It is a simple fact that all sorts of “problem” students, the more costly ones, not just the sexually active or pregnant, are frequently expelled from charter and private schools of all kinds, and sent to genuine public schools. Moreover, most charter and voucher schools frequently find ways not to accept special education students, either. Thus, the public schools incur educational expenses that most charter and voucher schools receiving public money do not. So public schools face budgeting challenges that private schools receiving public money do not. Thus, when one hears that charter or voucher schools are more cost efficient than “wasteful government schools,” these facts must be kept in mind.

8. So common has been physical punishment that the precise size and thickness of paddle to be used has often been codified, eg., specifying the type wood, length of paddle, thickness of paddle, etc. Moreover, there is a likely reason that paddling is more common in Southern schools. Severe paddling was used to punish slaves so as to not leave any scars. A whip-scared slave was of less value than an unscared one, because the scars indicated an uncompliant slave and/or a runaway slave. Severely paddled slaves, it was believed, obeyed their masters better–as is desired of children by many adults.

9.  Berliner, D. C. (1997). Educational psychology meets the Christian      right: Differing views of children, schooling, teaching, and learning.  Teachers College Record, 98, 381-416. 

10. Retrieved February 10, 2021 from: https://www.news4jax.com/news/2015/03/10/video-shows-girl-held-down-paddled-in-school/

11. The Condition of Education, National Center for EducationalStatistics (2020).  Retrieved February 20, 2021 from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cma.asp

12. Berliner, D. C. (2022, in press). The Scandalous History of Schools That Receive Public Financing, But Do Not Accept the Public’s Right of Oversight. In Berliner, D.C. and Hermanns, C. (Eds.), Public Education: The Cornerstone of American Democracy. New York. Teachers College Press.

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