Private schools getting public money violate our educational norms for facts

As Mathew Goldstein documents here, religion-based private schools in Maryland -- some of which are getting taxpayer money under a Hogan program -- have been in the "alternate facts" business long before Trump and Kellyanne Conway. Hogan wants to double down on this taxpayer funding despite the non-verifiable "facts" in their textbooks.

/By Mathew Goldstein/ All youth everywhere should be educated in modern knowledge without omissions or qualifications.  How do we get to that point?  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. Our education system from kindergarten to post-doc research is grounded on this method.  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.

 Governor Hogan’s attempts to miseducate Maryland’s students through expansion of private school vouchers subverts the evidence-based education that we need more than ever.

Private schools eligible for Governor Hogan's Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today, a.k.a. BOOST, vouchers that were approved last year by the General Assembly are disproportionately religious and Catholic.  The Pew Forum Religious Landscape Study estimated that 15% of Maryland residents are Catholic and 10% do not believe in a God . Yet 65% of the private schools that qualified for BOOST scholarship vouchers in 2016 were Catholic and 3% were nonreligious.  This year Governor Hogan is proposing continuing the program for three more years with double the original budget allocation.

These schools are unaccountable to the public and, because they are not subject to standardized tests, cannot be compared educationally with public schools – an advantage for them, as testimony shows below.

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.

BOOST private school vouchers will finance such miseducation from sectarian publishers.  As an appendix, see below the publishers, the non-verifiable material they provide, and their customers among Maryland private schools eligible for vouchers.

In total, 14.8% (almost 1 in 6) BOOST schools are members of, or use textbooks from, an organization that promotes creationism, intelligent design, or an inerrant bible.  Covenant Life School says this about its science curriculum: “We seek to expose and help our students discern the lies (e.g., the origin of species through evolution) that pervade the sciences as they are commonly taught.”  Schools like these prioritize proselytizing for their own religious world view over providing an unbiased, comprehensive, and factually accurate education to children. 

Even those religiously affiliated private schools that are the most ecumenical, that eschew holy book inerrancy and that seek to embrace modern knowledge, gratuitously add some unsubstantiated religious content and avoid some 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.   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.

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.”

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 average test results of local public schools could then be compared with the average test results of the private schools that qualify for the vouchers.  Vouchers could then be granted to those students attending eligible private schools only if their local public school scores lower on those tests than the private school.

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, should 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.

APPENDIX: BOOST-ELIGIBLE PRIVATE SCHOOLS AND THEIR KNOWLEDGE SOURCES:

Private schools that qualified for BOOST vouchers in 2016 included:

Abeka: Bethel Christian Academy, Calvary Christian Academy, Elvaton Christian Academy, Excellence Christian School, Grace Christian Academy of Maryland, Greater Grace Christian Academy, Kings Christian Academy, Shabach! Christian Academy, and Woodstream Christian Academy 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: Bethel Christian Academy, Calvary Christian Academy, Elvaton Christian Academy, Grace Christian Academy of Maryland, Greater Grace Christian Academy, Kings Christian Academy, and Riverdale Baptist School – utilize textbooks from Bob Jones University Press (“BJU Press”).  BJU Press promotes biblical inerrancy.

ASCI: Bethel Christian Academy, Calvary Christian Academy, Carroll Lutheran School, Covenant Life School, Excellence Christian School, Grace Christian Academy of Maryland, Greater Grace Christian Academy, Highland Park Christian Academy, Kings Christian Academy, Reid Temple Christian Academy, Riverdale Baptist School, Trinity Lutheran School, and Woodstream Christian Academy belong to the Association of Christian Schools International.  ASCI endorses intelligent design creationism.

ACE: Greater Youth Christian Academy is member of Accelerated Christian Education 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 that rejects ecumenism and promotes creationism.

ACCS: Woodstream Christian Academy belongs to the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (ACCS). The ACCS was founded by Douglas Wilson, who favors theocracy, advocates for exiling gays and executing adulterers, and argued that slavery in the United States was good for race relations.

CSI: Bethel Christian Academy and Highland Park Christian Academy 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:  Atholton Adventist Academy, Baltimore Junior Academy, Baltimore White Marsh Adventist School, Frederick Adventist Academy, George E Peters SDA elementary school, Highland View Academy, John Nevins Andrews School, Mount Aetna Adventist School, Olney Adventist Preparatory School, Sligo Adventist School, SpencervIlle Adventist Academy, and Takoma Academy. 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.


Mathew Goldstein lives in Bowie. He is a member of Secular Coalition for Maryland http://secularmaryland.org