Voucher Schemers Show Their Contempt for Public Schools

Opponents of private school vouchers delivered a strong message to Texas House Public Education Committee members at a public hearing on Monday: stop trying to use tax dollars to subsidize private and religious schools at the expense of our neighborhood public schools.

The folks delivering that message included parents, clergy and Democratic as well as Republican lawmakers. State Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, for example, pointed out that the Texas Constitution requires lawmakers to fund public, not private, schools:

“To me, words matter. The Constitution matters. And when people refer to state funds and the government schools, I think we should refer to the schools as the Constitution schools because that’s where it originated.”

The Georgetown Republican, who is soon retiring, outlined a long list of some private school admission requirements — no discipline issues, good academic performance, letters of reference, drug testing and parental involvement, including financial contributions — and asked what would happen if students using public funds don’t meet those criteria.

“It appears to me either the private school is going to lose their identity and their rights to have all these rules or else the voucher is meaningless,” she said.

Charles Johnson of Pastors for Texas Children, which advocates for public schools and their students, warned that vouchers would undermine private as well as public schools. After all, government funding comes (or should come) with government requirements, which private schools oppose. Here’s part of what Johnson said:

“A voucher scheme means, essentially the end of private education, is what it means. Do we need an alternative system of educating our students? No. We need to renew our dedication to the system we have.”

(See Johnson’s full prepared testimony below.)

Supporters of private school voucher schemes prattled on about “empowering” parents. Of course, the best way to do that would be to fully fund and support the public school system that educates the vast majority of Texas kids — more than 5 million of them. But voucher schemers want to take already inadequate funding from our neighborhood schools and use those tax dollars to subsidize private and religious schools that pick and choose which kids to admit.

In fact, their contempt for public schools is so clear that a few years ago pro-voucher lawmakers — including then-senator and now-lieutentant governor Dan Patrick, R-Houston — held a press conference at an Austin Catholic elementary school to talk about “reforming” public education. Seriously.

Then today a Texas official for the right-wing, Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity tweeted a photo of students at a rally waving pro-voucher signs: “Lots of enthusiasm for #schoolchoice in San Antonio.”

Of course there was — the students, dressed in their uniforms, were sitting in a Catholic high school gymnasium and waving signs passed out by another right-wing political advocacy group. And sure enough, Lt. Gov. Patrick was a featured speaker at the event.

The contempt voucher supporters have for public schools and the millions of Texas kids who attend them couldn’t be clearer. This will be a big battle when the Legislature convenes in January.

Here is Johnson’s prepared statement from Monday’s House committee hearing:

Chairman Aycock, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you and your committee today about what we have witnessed in our fine neighborhood and community public schools throughout our great State. My name is Charles Johnson, pastor of Bread Fellowship, Fort Worth. I am also executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, a statewide organization mobilizing the faith community for public education support and advocacy. We do two things: we minister to children in our local schools and we advocate for just policy for our children with our legislators. We were birthed out of the Baptist General Convention of Texas three years ago and now have over 1900 faith leaders of all denominations in churches all across Texas.

We are in our schools every day and see children from every ethnicity, every socio-economic background, and all walks of life succeeding beautifully on their path to productive citizenship in our society. We see children discovering their God-given talent and giftedness at the hands of dedicated teachers answering the call of God to pursue careers as educators. We witness daily the sheer moral power of public education as a building block of our society. This is why we are compelled to deliver the message to whoever will listen that universal public education is God’s will for all people—not a “choice” accorded to a few through a school choice voucher. I’d like to share several reasons why:

Public education is a moral duty. Education is a gift of God for all people. Just like the first human did in the Bible story so long ago, every person gets to name God’s world. Just as God brought all the creatures to the human to see what he would name them, so classroom teachers in schools all across our land teach our children to name God’s world. It’s the only way we can fulfill the first commandment of God to “be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it.” Education is a core component of the public interest. It is God’s common good for all God’s children—not just for those who are smart and stable and economically secure enough to pay for it with a school choice voucher.

Public education is a democratic duty. The founders of this nation determined at the outset of our Republic that in order to have a democratic society, we must educate all our children—not just a few children from families affluent enough to pay for it. Public education is a cornerstone of our American way of life. It is what has made America great. Our neighborhood and community schools are the places where our American history is taught, where our children learn basic civics, where the Pledge of Allegiance is said every day, where citizens are made. In America, citizenship is for all people—not just those few fortunate enough to be chosen by a school choice voucher.

Public education is a societal duty. It is incorrect for some of our friends to say that the money should follow the child because it is “my money.” With all due respect, it is not “my money” in a just society. We have a responsibility to participate in the well-being of all people. Do I get to have my own private security guard subsidized by the public through a “safety choice voucher?” Do I get to have my private swimming pool underwritten by the people of Texas because I don’t use the public pool? In a just and equal society, do I get a “transportation voucher” because I walk or ride a bicycle? The love of neighbor has founded our social order in these United States. We practice that love of neighbor through our taxation to support investments in that societal infrastructure.

Public education is a constitutional duty. The Constitution of the State of Texas says this in Article 7, Section 1: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” The members of this legislative body swore a Bible oath to uphold that provision. There is no proper authorization for this body to do anything with private schools.

Public education is a spiritual duty. We believe wholeheartedly in religious liberty as a gift of God from all people. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did not make it up. It is the principle upon which our nation is founded. So, we affirm that no overt religious instruction or activity should be advanced or established with tax dollars in our public schools. All faith is voluntary. It belongs in the home and the church—not in our public institutions. This government has no authority to advance religion in our public schools. Nor, on the other hand, does this government have any authority to meddle in our private and home schools through a school choice voucher. Any money that is diverted from the public trust to a private entity will be publically accounted for, thus inserting and intruding government into the voluntary associations of religious schools.

But, faithful teachers take the love of God with them into our classrooms each and every day, ministering long hours at low pay while serving the poorest children in our midst. They instill character. They teach respect across the wide diversity of our population. They show unconditional love to all kids. They do this because they are called before God. This is why the dynamics that govern our capitalistic system do not operate in an educational environment. Market forces such as competition and cost benefit analysis simply do not apply in the formation of a human being. A classroom is a holy place of learning—not a marketplace of financial gain. To make commodities of our kids and markets of our classrooms is to misunderstand—and profane—the spirituality of education.