“How dismal it is to see present day Americans yearning for the very orthodoxy that their country was founded to escape.”
― Christopher Hitchens
Last week Education Secretary Betsy DeVos traveled to New York City for a tour of private religious schools. While there one of her stops was a breakfast hosted by the Alfred E. Smith Foundation which raises money for Catholic causes and charities. In her speech to the group she advocated the overturning of constitutional restrictions which prohibit the spending of tax dollars for religious schools. The Atlanta Journal Constitution published a number of excerpts from her speech which can be accessed here. The full speech can be found here on the US Department of Education’s website.
The DeVos family has a long tradition of trying to secure state funding of religious schools. This tour to New York City came on the heels of an announcement on May 9th by the Department of Education that it would scrap or amend a number of rules that restrict faith-based entities from receiving federal funding. The rules she is ultimately after are the Blaine Amendments, currently on the books in 38 states which prohibit the use of government funds for sectarian (religious) education. Inspired by President Ulysses Grant’s call in 1875 for a constitutional amendment mandating free public education and prohibiting government money being spent on religious education. Maine Congressman James G. Blaine introduced the constitutional amendment that same year. It passed the House of Representatives but did not make it through the Senate. Advocates of the amendment then turned to local state legislatures throughout the country and got it passed into law at the state level.
DeVos is quite clear about her goal: “These amendments should be assigned to the ash heap of history and this “last acceptable prejudice” should be stamped out once and for all.” The “last acceptable prejudice” being the separation of church and state. This is not just another attempt by theocratic ideologues to eviscerate US public education. Now they have managed to place Ms. DeVos in precisely the position where she can do the maximum amount of damage. By removing the Blaine amendments and allowing taxpayer dollars to be funneled into religious schools the current inadequate funding of public schools will be stretched even thinner. The overall quality of education in the country will be reduced as more and more funds are siphoned from the public schools as study after study comparing public and religious schools performance has shown. Students graduating from religious schools score lower on just about every core skill that can be measured. To illustrate this point while in New York DeVos turned down visiting public schools while in New York instead opting to tour two Orthodox Jewish schools, the Manhattan School for Girls and the Yeshiva Darchei Torah for boys. What Secretary DeVos did not address in her speech is the fact that New York yeshivas (Jewish religious schools) have been under investigation since 2015 when it was alleged that dozens of them failed to teach math, science and English and after students reached the age of 13 only religious courses were offered to them. Many of these graduates struggled to write their names in English. This is what Secretary DeVos would like to see in all of our schools and wants to use tax payer money to accomplish this goal.
In much the same way that the hyper religious refuse medical treatment for their children, DeVos and her allies want to give hyper religious parents the opportunity to refuse giving their children a proper education and instead instill in them the ‘alternate facts’ found in their religious books, which are no facts at all. DeVos claims that the education of children is not a function or concern of government. But it surely is. The government has a vested interest in educating it’s citizens in order to have a healthy and robust society. A fractured sectarian school system graduating illiterates does not accomplish this and the people deprived of an education will be perpetual mendicants and burdens on social welfare systems for decades to come. This is not a future I want for my grandchildren nor do I think it is a future you want for yours.