In the first part of this series I noted briefly that private schools may or may not be religiously affiliated, and that, generally speaking, this affiliation is a value neutral characteristic. The major critique in that part was over the problem of school funding, though, particularly how moving students from public schools to private ones would most severely impact the economy of scale that allows public schools to effectively serve low socioeconomic status students and students with special needs.
Let’s get back to the question of religious affiliation and its larger umbrella, school ideology.
The school choice movement is based primarily in the American white evangelical community. The people advocating for this model, like Betsy DeVos, subscribe to a system of belief that’s saturated with the idea of being counter cultural (that white evangelicals make up a large plurality of the American populace doesn’t seem to ever occur to them as a reason why they can’t actually be counter cultural). The idea comes, of course, from the white evangelical reading of the New Testament where Paul encourages Christians to be “in the world, but not of the world.” This idea’s the foundation of the culture wars. One of the major tenets of the culture wars, as they’re viewed from the white evangelical side, is that the separation between church and state is a monstrously bad thing because it leads to people losing faith in (their version of) God. Pushing to weaken that barrier is one of the ways white evangelicals try to fulfill the mission of their sect (never mind that conversion by fiat is a terrible model for lasting religious engagement).
The thinking generally goes that while you can’t force religion into public schools (that pesky First Amendment, y’know), there’s nothing wrong with working it into private institutions; with school choice, one of the underlying motivations is to divert federal money away from agencies that are restricted by the First Amendment to organizations that have no such reservations. If you chip away at public education by diverting that money to other schools, eventually public schools will be undermined enough that private education becomes the only viable game in town (for those students that private schools will accept). It’s an attempt at creating de facto government sponsorship of religious education under the umbrella of “religious freedom” (and more specifically, government sponsorship of Christian education; I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the Satanic Temple establishes an elementary school to test the universality of the religious freedom argument).
The reason for all this sleight of hand is to replace the civics education that’s supposed to be the bedrock of American public education with a system that allows families to place their children in environments that sustain and replicate the epistemic closure that pops up in insular religious communities. A common cry heard from conservatives is that public schools in America try to indoctrinate children into a liberal agenda, which is only true insofar as the values of mutual respect for others’ humanity and desire to understand objective truth are values that many conservatives have ceded as belonging solely to liberal ideology. They see schools engaging in cultural indoctrination and come to the conclusion that it’s only fair they have their own spaces to provide competing indoctrination (and that with enough social engineering, the thinking goes, they can drive the competitors into irrelevance).
Besides the religious motivation, which I’m inclined to find highly suspect but not innately perpetrated by bad actors, there is the more clearly concerning profit motive of private and charter schools. Charter schools are a weird category that I haven’t discussed much up to this point, so let me break down what they are in brief. In a charter school, the local and state education agencies have suspended direct oversight and handed it over to a private organization for management and administration. The stated goal of this model is to allow for more flexibility in school modeling so that schools can try to tailor their environments to better fit the needs of their students free of a lot of cumbersome regulations. The problem with this model comes with the fact that you establish a system where regulations are minimized for an organization that is operating from a profit motive. The goal of the administrations in these charter schools is often to make money rather than to deliver a high quality education to their students, and these circumstances, absent effective oversight, lead to situations where schools will try to cut costs in order to make more money off their students. John Oliver did a good in-depth story on the subject of charter schools last year that’s available on Youtube (it’s embedded at the bottom of this post for anyone who wishes to view it).
For the sake of discussion here, I’m lumping charter schools in with nonreligious private schools. The level of government oversight varies somewhat between these categories, but it’s significantly diminished in both cases in comparison with public schools. There are certainly good actors in this category, schools that treat their fiduciary responsibility to their students with the gravity it deserves, but they all ultimately treat education as a business rather than a public service. There is always a bottom line that must be weighed against the needs of students, and in private institutions, that bottom line doesn’t go nearly as deep as in public schools.
Also from Libby Anne: “Inequalities Abound: Betsy DeVos and School Closures”