Last month, Bobby Jindal, Republican governor of Louisiana, pushed a sweeping school voucher bill through the Louisiana state legislature. Not only was it passed by reportedly bending normal voting rules, but some critics charge it may also be unconstitutional.
In short, the legislation allows for vouchers of $8,800 to be offered to families that make less than $60,000 a year and have children attending public schools in which at least 25 percent of students test below grade level. Public schools will then lose funding for every one of their students that opts to use a voucher. It could, when all is said and done, cost the public school system of Louisiana $3.5 billion annually.
The vouchers in question can be used to send children to parochial schools, effectively using taxpayer money to subsidize religious education. This is a problem, for both me and at least a few Louisiana lawmakers. I find it troublesome due to the seeming violation of separation of church and state. Some Louisiana lawmakers, however, find it troublesome because the vouchers used for religious schools can’t be used only if the school is Christian.
When some representatives found out that the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans had been approved to receive vouchers (though it has since withdrawn from the program), they balked. Rep. Kenneth Havard said he wouldn’t support any bill that funds Islamic teaching. “I won’t go back home and explain to my people that I supported this,” he proclaimed.
At least Rep. Havard realized that the vouchers had to be available for all religious schools. Rep. Valarie Hodges unfortunately missed that little point.
Earlier this month, Hodges, who had originally supported the bill, stated, “I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools… I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school.”
One of the approved Christian schools is New Living Word, which, according to Reuters, “has a top-ranked basketball team but no library. Students spend most of the day watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with subjects such chemistry or composition. Another approved school, Eternity Christian Academy, uses the fundamentalist A.C.E curriculum. Among other things, the A.C.E. curriculum teaches students what God made in each of the six days of creation, as well as that the Loch Ness Monster is real, in order to debunk evolution. (the LA Department of Education did not require site visits as part of the approval process for schools) For Rep. Hodges, either of these schools would be preferable to Muslim ones.
The issue at hand is that the Louisiana voucher law does absolutely nothing to improve the state’s public education program. It simply takes resources away from the already struggling institution and funnels them to schools that should not be receiving public funds. If a parent believes that humans and dinosaurs co-existed and they want their child to learn the same, by all means, let them pay for their son or daughter to attend Eternity Christian Academy. If someone wants their child to go to the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans, they should of course be free to send their child there. But not at the expense of the taxpayers.
See the Center’s Law and its influence on public schools for a discussion of the First Amendment and religion in public schools. — Ashwini Yelamanchili