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How The Media Uses ‘Creationism’ To Attack School Choice

The left is ostensibly opposed to “public money going to parochial schools” but the unspoken crisis of vouchers is that it offers parents any choice, period.


Eric Meikle, project director at the National Center for Science Education, tells Politico that he doesn’t believe “the function of public education is to prepare students for the turn of the 19th century.” Good point. We should stop teaching kids about the wonders of windmills and choo choo trains and stop demeaning the technological accomplishments of the 20th century. Because guess what: it already sounds a lot like the 19th century in classrooms.

Of course, Meikle wasn’t referring to the environmental Cassandras of our public school districts, he was pondering the boogeyman of creationism. And, like most efforts to warn us about the menace of religious extremism in schools, Politico’s investigation — “Special report: Taxpayers fund creationism in the classroom” — of “creationism” offers the media a convenient way to express secular unease about the supposed outsized power of zealots while also clouding the purpose of school choice.

Yes,14 states spend “nearly $1 billion” of taxpayer tuition on “hundreds of religious schools” that teach kids the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. This would be more troubling if we didn’t spend hundreds of billions every year not teaching millions of kids how to read. Voucher programs offer a wide variety of choices for parents, unlike the closed, failing districts schools that so many kids are trapped in. As of now, public schools spend around $638 billion on around 55 million students but only 250,000 students – almost all of them poor — are free to use vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. Of those kids, the vast majority do not attend schools with curriculums that feature intelligent design. Yet, judging from all the “special investigations” of creationism in schools, you might be under the impression it was the most pressing problem faced by educators.

I suspect that untold numbers of parents would sacrifice their children to the Gods of Creationism if meant they could attend safe and high-achieving schools. A lot of these schools score well. But that’s not the choice, either. Stephanie Simon’s piece offers a perfunctory acknowledgement that not all private schools are churning out fundamentalists, but then spends around two-thirds of her time discussing school-choice advocacy broadly  – with the obligatory “Koch-funded” group playing a part — and conflating all that can be conflated about the issue. School-choice activism (Politico calls it a “big-money push,” which in the context of union money is laughable) focuses primarily on an escape route for underprivileged kids and the need to create a more competitive public schools, not religious education.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a philosophical component. Though I tend to believe that this debate is more often fought in newspapers and on blogs than in real life, according to a Gallup, and other polls, around half of America believes that humankind was conceived in its present form. If those parents happen not to be rich, should government force them to send their kids to schools that do not comport with their religious convictions? Or, for that matter, should I be forced to send my kids to a school that undermines my beliefs about evolution?  Well, vouchers can save both of us. As Michael McShane points out over at NRO, if you’re a poor parent in Louisiana Tennessee, Texas or Kansas, school choice may be your only way to escape from systems that teach creationism:

Just watch the documentary The Revisionaries, which chronicles the Texas State Board of Education’s efforts to include creationism in public schools. In 2008, Louisiana passed the Science Education Act, which allowed public-school teachers to supplement science instruction with texts critical of evolution. In 2012, Tennessee passed a similar law. From 2005 to 2007, Kansas science standards promoted Intelligent Design and “Teaching the Controversy” about evolution and creationism.

Broadly speaking, educational choice has gained traction over the past decade, primarily due to the success of charter schools —  and though liberal proponents of charters would be unwilling to admit, work under the same basic idea as vouchers. Right now, there are two major state-wide pushes to expand school choice underway: One, an expansion of the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts,  where parents would receive vouchers for 90 percent of public school funding per student to help pay for private school tuition or home-schooling. Second, Florida is debating expanding their successful  Tax Credit Scholarship Program, a voucher-ish program that allows parents to take their per student dollar spending and shop for better schools.

And nothing turns voters against vouchers more than the idea of funding a religious education with public money. Many voters are likely unaware that the U.S. Supreme Court says state funds can be used to supplement a religious education if parents are also offered a variety of other choices. The left will ostensibly oppose “public money going to parochial schools” because it best suits their political position, but the often unspoken crisis of vouchers and choice is that government offers parents any choice. That’ what this creationist scare in the media is all about.

David Harsanyi is a Senior Editor at The Federalist and author of the The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy. Follow him on Twitter.