By Zack Kopplin
According to so-called education reform advocates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, school vouchers, which allow parents to direct state money to private schools of their choice, are essential because “families need the financial freedom to attend schools that meet their needs.” From Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, to Newark, N.J.’s Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, these programs are backed by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and they enjoy the support of powerful interest groups such as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and the American Federation for Children.
Voucher programs have been established in 12 states and the District of Columbia, and they are spreading as Texas and Tennessee attempt to create ones of their own. As the use of vouchers has expanded across the country in recent years, new questions have arisen that extend beyond concerns about their appropriateness and legality. We’ve pushed standards, testing and accountability for public schools, so why shouldn’t private institutions receiving vouchers have to meet those same requirements? Should private institutions be allowed to ignore state science standards and teach their students creationism while receiving taxpayer money? Does learning about biblical creation, rather than evolution, really help to meet students’ needs?
I first investigated the relationship between creationism and voucher programs after reading an AlterNet article in June about Eternity Christian Academy in Louisiana. Now removed from the state’s voucher program, the school was using the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum to teach students that the mythical Loch Ness Monster existed and somehow disproved evolution. As I looked further into Louisiana’s program, I found that there wasn’t just one school but at least 20 private ones getting vouchers and thus receiving millions of taxpayer dollars. After reviewing my research, New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist James Gill wrote that “vouchers have turned out to be the answer to a creationist’s prayer.”
This isn’t just a Louisiana problem. It seems clear that the U.S. is facing a national creationism epidemic. In an exposé I wrote posted by MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, I identified hundreds of additional voucher schools in nine states and the District of Columbia using dozens of different creationist curriculums. These schools are receiving tens of millions of dollars, and maybe even hundreds of millions, to teach religious beliefs in violation of state science standards. With 164 such campuses, Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarships for Students With Disabilities Program contained the highest concentration of creationist voucher schools I was able to uncover. Indiana, which has been marketed as the “gold standard” for voucher accountability, has at least 37 such schools teaching creationism. A couple of its campuses proudly advertise that their students are taken to the Creation Museum on field trips. So far, I’ve discovered 311 creationist voucher schools across the country.
Those 311 schools are not the only taxpayer funded institutions teaching creationism. There are likely hundreds more. Although many are difficult to find, either because they don’t have websites or don’t advertise their creationist curriculum, lots of voucher schools fit the profile of creationist campuses that are already known. On top of this, two states, Arizona and Mississippi, have voucher programs but don’t release the names of participating schools. Officials with the Arizona Department of Education confirmed to me that every private school in the state is eligible to participate in the program, and since I’ve identified private creationist schools there that could be involved, there is little doubt that Arizona is funding some of them. I believe it’s a safe bet that every school voucher program in the country is financing creationism.
These campuses would be shut if they were subject to the same standards as public institutions. The courts have shot down the teaching of creationism and intelligent design with public money over and over again, so why are we letting taxpayer funded private voucher schools teach them? The scientists and educators who devised both state science standards and the national common core standards knew creationism was pseudo-science that would not help American students get the education they need to succeed in a global, 21st century economy. That’s why we don’t teach creationism in public schools. Taxpayers should be outraged that their hard-earned dollars are enabling the mis-education of private school students.
Aside from not meeting these basic academic standards, many voucher schools suffer from other significant problems. Louisiana bloggers have exposed profiteering prophets who sought to capitalize on taxpayer funding for private schools. The Miami New Times reports that voucher schools in Florida are being run by administrators who “include criminals convicted of cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary.” A school in Louisiana’s program was slated to receive millions of dollars from vouchers but lacked the facilities needed to house new students.
Proponents of vouchers argue that diverting money from public to private schools will help students learn by increasing inter-campus competition. But when voucher programs contain institutions that teach creationism instead of science, it’s easy to see that damage is being done to students whose futures are jeopardized by poor education.
Although a judge recently ruled that the way Louisiana funds its school voucher program is unconstitutional, it continues to operate as the state appeals the decision. Similarly, the voucher program in Colorado has been halted by a court injunction. But given the aggressive activity of taxpayer funded voucher programs across the country, we need to fight to make sure that no additional ones are created. And we need to stop politicians in states such as Indiana and Wisconsin from following through on plans to expand already existing programs. Today’s students and our nation’s future demand it.
Zack Kopplin is a science education advocate and winner of the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in Education and the National Center for Science Education’s Friend of Darwin Award.
John Scalzi (CC BY 2.0)
Part of an exhibit at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky.