Conservative push for school vouchers harms our students

Private school vouchers for Maryland students, a project of Gov. Larry Hogan that Assembly Democrats have (minimally) funded, has severe consequences for student learning, as Mathew Goldstein outlines here. The "facts" presented in classrooms and textbooks by these (mostly religious) private institutions are "alternative facts," to say the least.

Private school vouchers promote miseducation

/By Mathew Goldstein/ Governor Larry Hogan reintroduced his “Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today”, a.k.a. BOOST, private school vouchers as part of his budget this year. Most of the eligible schools are religious. This is partly because many private schools are religious, and partly because secular private schools are more likely to be disqualified by exceeding the $14,000 per year tuition limit. Governor Hogan said he wanted to double last year’s allocation of $5 million for BOOST, but his budget bill actually allocated $8.5 million. The General Assembly at first reduced that to $5 million, the same amount allocated last year, and then decided on $7 million. This year’s Democratic Party candidate for Governor, Ben Jealous, opposes private school vouchers.

 

Defining a good education
All youth everywhere should be educated in modern knowledge without omissions or qualifications. Our collective knowledge is rooted in an international consensus of subject matter experts that is logically derived using a best fit with the available empirical evidence criteria. Finding empirical evidence and convincingly relating the evidence to conclusions requires effort and time. The history of the pursuit of knowledge demonstrates that this epistemology is uniquely successful, there is no other approach that reliably reaches accurate conclusions about how our universe functions. Beliefs about how the universe functions that are derived outside the aforementioned framework are not knowledge.  Teaching such beliefs to children as if they are knowledge is miseducation.

Incentives and pathways for miseducation
There are few restrictions on what private schools can teach their students, and so they may mix academics, religion, and politics tightly together. Religious schools often have an institutional self-interest to try to convince children to accept the school’s definition of deity. They may actively teach children to distrust and fear competing perspectives, including secular academics. Some religious schools teach children blatant falsehoods that contradict modern scientific consensus, such as young earth creationism. Young children are impressionable, teenagers are responsive to peer pressure, and as a result they are vulnerable to indoctrination. They may be taught that faith is one of the most important virtues, that one faith is superior to all other faiths, that they will be severely punished for disbelieving and greatly rewarded for believing, that particular beliefs about how the universe functions are requisite for morality. The result is potentially harmful miseducation that undermines the targeted victim’s intellectual potential and can be difficult to undo.

 

Enabling the business of textbooks that miseducate
BOOST private school vouchers will finance such miseducation from sectarian publishers. Private schools that qualified for BOOST vouchers in 2018 included:

  • Abeka textbooks: Calvary Christian Academy, Elvaton Christian Academy, Greater Grace Christian Academy, Kings Christian Academy and Mount Pleasant Christian School utilize textbooks from publisher A Beka Book (“Abeka”). Abeka takes a biblical literalist and young Earth creationist position in its science curriculum and falsely portrays the Genesis creation narrative as fact.
  • BJU Press textbooks: Calvary Christian Academy, Elvaton Christian Academy, Greater Grace Christian Academy, and Kingsslate_for_school.jpg Christian Academy utilize textbooks from Bob Jones University Press (“BJU Press”). BJU Press promotes biblical inerrancy.
  • ASCI: Broadfording Christian Academy, Calvary Christian Academy, Chesapeake Christian School, Countryside Christian School, First Baptist School of Laurel, Grace Academy, Highland Park Christian Academy, Kings Christian Academy, Mount Pleasant Christian School, National Christian Academy, and Trinity Lutheran School belong to the Association of Christian Schools International (ASCI). ASCI endorses intelligent design creationism.
  • ACE: Greater Youth Christian Academy is member of Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) which promotes young earth creationism, declares solar fusion to be a myth invented by evolutionary scientists, and teaches that homosexuality is a choice.
  • AACS: The King's Christian Academy is a member of the American Association of Christian Schools (AACS) that rejects ecumenism and promotes creationism.
  • CSI: Highland Park Christian Academy and Washington Christian School belong to the Christian Schools International (CSI) which endorses creationism. The fossil record and geology are given only three pages each in CSI science textbooks, none of which explore biological evolution. Here is an excerpt from their science textbook: ‘Humans are also considered primates because we have the physical characteristics that define this order. Of course, we are more than primates. God forms us, unlike animals, in his image, and we alone have souls. God sets us apart from the rest of creation and even commands us to care for the rest of creation . . . So even though physically you may be considered a primate, remember that you are a child of God."’’ No mention is made of the central role that DNA has in identifying which species are primates independently of physical characteristics.
  • Seventh Day Adventists: Baltimore Junior Academy, George E Peters SDA elementary school, and Olney Adventist Preparatory School. At a gathering of science teachers on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014 the President of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Dr. Ted Wilson, told the international invitation-only gathering of about 350 Adventist high school and college science teachers, that they are obligated to teach young earth creationism: “We believe that the Biblical creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 was a literal event that took place in six literal, consecutive days recently as opposed to deep time. It was accomplished by God's authoritative voice and happened when He spoke the world into existence." The Geoscience Research Institute, an organization sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, claims to gather data that supports a literal seven-day creation and subsequent worldwide flood as described in the Bible.

 

A variety of ways to mislead
Even those religiously affiliated private schools that are the most ecumenical, that eschew holy book inerrancy, or that seek to embrace modern knowledge, exhibit a tendency to add unsubstantiated religious content and avoid inconvenient scientific details when teaching children how the universe functions to promote their religious worldview, resulting in a subtly biased and compromised education. Schools that do not promote young or old earth creationism or intelligent design may instead promote theistic evolution. These schools may teach students that satan intervenes in our universe and associate satan with non-theism. They may teach about Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jonah, virgin birth, resurrection, etc. as if they were historical facts. The web site for Washington Christian Academy says “Our High School theology curriculum focuses on the reality and historicity of the life, work, and resurrection of Jesus, not only for our salvation, but also for living the Christian life.” When opposing perspectives are presented to the students it is often for the purpose of refuting them. A commitment to know the facts regarding how the universe functions and to understand how to reliably distinguish between well-justified and poorly justified assertions are valuable civic virtues that government should be fostering, not undermining with private school vouchers.

 

Private school students do not do better academically
An often stated objective of BOOST is to help low-income students leave underperforming public schools. Yet in its first year of operation, almost 80% of the students receiving a voucher were already enrolled in a private school. Vouchers to fund private school scholarships are unlikely to provide better educational outcomes for Maryland’s children overall. At a Congressional House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on February 3, 2016 titled “Expanding Educational Opportunity through School Choice,” Luis Huerta, Associate Professor of Education & Public Policy at Columbia University, stated that none of the independent studies of the nation’s “most lauded and long-standing voucher programs…found any statistical evidence that children who utilized vouchers performed better than children who did not and remained in public schools.” However, Huerta said there is “evidence to support that[,] compared against students who participate in voucher programs, public school students fare better academically.”

 

Here are some recent voucher program analysis results:

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction report on Milwaukee Program: “Students in Milwaukee’s school choice program performed worse than or about the same as students in Milwaukee Public Schools in math and reading on the latest statewide test, according to results released Tuesday that provided the first apples-to-apples achievement comparison between public and individual voucher schools.”

MIT Study of Louisiana Program: “Attendance at an LSP-eligible private school lowers math scores by 0.4 standard deviations and increases the likelihood of a failing score by 50 percent. Voucher effects for reading, science and social studies are also negative and large. The negative impacts of vouchers are consistent across income groups, geographic areas, and private school characteristics, and are larger for younger children.”

Chalkbeat Education News on Indiana Program: “A new long-term study out of Indianapolis, done by researchers at Notre Dame University, found that students who switched from traditional public schools to Catholic schools actually did worse.

 

No accountability for improving academic achievement
While each of the schools is required to give standardized tests in certain grades to BOOST recipients, there is no requirement that they report the results to the state or that the students meet certain achievement levels. If this law is really about improving the quality of education and not about government subsidizing promotion of religious beliefs then BOOST eligible schools should be required to evaluate their students with the same standardized tests that public schools are required to utilize. The test scores for local public schools could then be compared with the test scores of the private schools that qualify for the vouchers. Vouchers would then be granted to those students attending an eligible private schools only if their local public school ranks lower than the private school.

 

Productive options to assist privately educated students
If lawmakers want to reduce the cost of private education then they can provide additional funding to public schools to allow otherwise privately educated children to attend public school classes part time and/or to participate in public school sponsored extracurricular activities. Each county can have their own law regarding the extent to which their state public school classes and facilities are available to children who are otherwise receiving a private education. Private schools, and homeschooled children, are currently eligible to be lent the same government purchased textbooks that are utilized by the secular public schools. These approaches to assisting privately educated children avoid most of the problems that result from direct or indirect government funding of unaccountable private schools with parochial ideological agendas.