March 24, 2014 2:17PM

Politico: Private Schooling a Threat to Science Education and Freedom of Conscience

In a lengthy piece released this morning, Politico asserts that publicly-funded private school choice programs are teaching creationism around the country and implies that public schools do not do likewise. It then quotes several sources as worrying about the impact that private school choice programs will have on science instruction, and as fretting that their money is being used to promote ideas they strongly disagree with. There are two serious problems with this story.

First, citing the work of activist Zach Kopplin, Politico states that “over three hundred” private schools participating in school choice programs are teaching creationism. Kopplin’s figures have been tabulated by the Friedman Foundation which reports that he identifies 305 creationist schools operating in 10 school choice programs. Those programs are served by a total of 3,084 private schools, so just under 10 percent appear to be creationist.

That may seem like a lot, particularly when you consider that, according to Politico, “Decades of litigation have established that public schools cannot teach creationism or intelligent design.” But that characterization is inaccurate. Public schools cannot constitutionally teach these things, but that doesn’t mean it never happens. In a nationwide poll of public school biology teachers, 21 percent “agree[d] with at least one statement concerning creationism or ID as a valid scientific approach.” What’s more, 14 percent of public school biology teachers both agreed with creationism and/or ID and actually taught about them in class. Though some of these teachers may stop short of endorsing these ideas to their students, it is naive to imagine that all are so self-disciplined.

So a core premise of the Politico story, that private school choice programs represent an unprecedented threat to biology instruction, is simply false. Nor should that come as a surprise. Public schools enroll 90 percent of American students and have done so for generations. And yet, the share of American adults who say that humans evolved as a result of purely natural processes is just 15 percent. Those of us who fear weak and mistaken science instruction should arguably be more concerned with our $600 billion / year public school system than with a relative handful of private schools.

The second problem with the Politico story is that it denies a crucial distinction among different types of education policies: some make use of public money, while others do not. Under voucher and “education savings account” programs as well as traditional public schooling, all taxpayers are required to fund types of instruction that may violate their most deeply felt convictions. As noted above, both private school choice programs and public schools have teachers who believe in creationism and teach about it to their students. It is entirely natural that more secular, science-oriented taxpayers would object to this—as does one of the sources cited by Politico.

But education tax credit programs avoid this problem, because they do not rely on public funds. The most common type of education tax credit is called a “scholarship donation” credit. Under these programs, donors who give to a non-profit tuition-subsidy organization receive a credit to cover some or all of their donation, and the organization then distributes their money to families who wish to send their children to private schools. There are two critical features to these programs. First, they are voluntary. If you don’t want to support the private school choices of needy families, you simply keep paying your taxes as you always did and your money goes to the traditional public school system as it always did. Second, if you do choose to participate, you select the scholarship organization that receives your funds, and you can choose one that comports with your own convictions. While some scholarship organizations specialize in serving families of particular faiths, many others do not. So both religious and secular families can find scholarships, and both religious and secular donors can find organizations to help them.

How important are these features? They were the deciding factors used by the U.S. Supreme Court when it rejected a challenge to Arizona’s scholarship donation tax credit program. Plaintiffs had alleged that the program forced them to support religion because, they claimed, it relied on public money. The court explained that “that is incorrect.” The justices went on to explain that since the plaintiffs did not participate in the program, none of their money had gone to religious education. Just last week I shared a pair of video links in which I talked about this issue in more detail.

The Supreme Court decision finding that donations made under education tax credit programs are not government money seems to have escaped the Politico writer, who incorrectly characterizes these donations as public funds on several occasions. They are not. And because they are private funds, voluntarily given, they free taxpayers from the conviction-violating compulsion that besets them under all publicly-funded school systems. Those who value freedom of conscience should thus prefer education tax credits to both public schooling and to vouchers or education savings accounts. Perhaps someday, civil libertarians on the left will come to understand that.