School improvement -- or tax dollars for religious indoctrination in private schools?

Bills headed towards passage in the legislative session would give tax credits to businesses and the wealthy for subsidizing private and religious schools. Mathew Goldstein outlines the drawbacks.

 /By Mathew Goldstein/ A bill that would allow businesses to take tax credits for donating to private schools, including religious-based secondary schools, is now making its way toward passage in the Maryland General Assembly. It would require up to $15 million added to the budget annually to cover the loss of revenue through this program potentially subsidizing religious indoctrination with taxpayer money.

Maryland Senate Bill 706, House Bill 1343, and House Bill 453 (Maryland Education Credit) propose providing a tax credit to reimburse individuals and businesses 60 percent of their donation to charities that finance private school scholarships for children and teenagers, capped at $15 million in tax credits each year.  All of these bills only offer the tax credits for schools that charge no more per student than the public schools.  This cost restriction provision favors religious schools because religious institutions already have paid staff who can be teachers or administrators and whose salaries are already paid by members and because a quality secular education is costly to provide.  House Bill 1213similarly proposes a 70 percent tax credit to reimburse business donations for private school tuition.

 Senate Bill 706 has passed in the Senate and is now being considered in the House.  If it passes in the House then it will be signed by Republican Governor Hogan. If you live in Maryland and oppose these "Maryland Education Credit" bills then send your representatives an email now, before the House floor vote.

 The finances of private schools can be opaque making financial abuses difficult to detect.  Private schools do not have to report or administer teacher qualifications, class sizes, curriculum taught, student retention rates, graduation rates, demographics, or discipline or suspension policies.  The private schools eligible to benefit from the tax credits may legally discriminate against both students and staff on the basis of academic ability, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and disability.  Insofar as these bills provide any anti-discrimination protections, those protections apply only to admissions, not to ongoing fair treatment of the admitted students, and even those limited admissions protections lack an enforcement mechanism.  For religious belief minorities and dissenters, including non-theists, need not apply will be the admissions policy of many of the schools that would benefit from the government subsidized tuition.  According to latest Pew Research Center’s Religion Landscape Study, 10% of Marylanders say they do not believe in God (and younger people are more likely than older people to be nonbelievers).

 Religious schools often have an institutional self-interest to try to convince children that they should accept the sponsoring organization's definition of deity.  They may actively teach children to distrust and fear secular academics or competing perspectives.  In pursuit of this self-interest some religious schools stridently teach children blatant falsehoods that contradict a large amount of modern knowledge.  Other religious schools more mildly teach subtle falsehoods that contradict a smaller amount of modern knowledge.  Either way, young children are impressionable, teenagers are responsive to peer pressure, and as a result they are vulnerable to carefully crafted indoctrination.  Private schools can mix political advocacy with religion with academics tightly together; there are no restrictions on what they can teach their students.  The result is potentially harmful miseducation that can be difficult to undo.

 The tax credits can finance purchases of religious books from sectarian publishers.  Some private schools in Maryland (for example, Windsor Christian Academy and Calvary Christian Academy) teach a curriculum provided by publisher A Beka Book.  A Beka Book takes a biblical literalist and young earth creationist position in its science curriculum, portraying the Genesis creation narrative as a fact.  Some Maryland private schools are members of Accelerated Christian Education, which promotes young earth creationism and declares solar fusion to be a myth invented by evolutionary scientists.

Some private schools in Maryland belong to the Association of Classical and Christian Schools that was founded by Douglas Wilson, who advocates for exiling gays and executing adulterers. Many private schools in Maryland belong to the Association of Christian Schools International which endorses intelligent design creationism.  A student and her mother who testified before the House Ways and Means Committee for these bills were from Chapelgate Christian Academy, which is a member of the Association of Christian Schools International. These schools prioritize promoting their own religious world view over providing an unbiased, comprehensive, and factually accurate education to children.

A tax credit to reimburse donations that fund private school scholarships is unlikely to provide better educational outcomes for Maryland’s children.  The other states that have implemented similar school voucher or tax credit policies have not evidenced academic improvements.

 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 its 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.  Additionally, private schools and home schooled children can 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.