Religion and schools

Recently I found myself both mourning the Florida Supreme Court decision that invalidated the Sunshine State's Opportunity Scholarship (aka exit voucher) program and applauding the federal court ruling in Pennsylvania that barred intelligent design from the science classroom.

Both events speak, in part, to the role of religion in K-12 education and in our public policies bearing on schools. So why, I asked myself, did I react so differently to these two decisions?

In the Dover, PA case, Judge John Jones termed "intelligent design" a form of religion and said that, as such, its inclusion in the public school curriculum violated the First Amendment's "establishment" clause. Florida's highest court used a different constitutional basis for quashing the state's voucher program (the "uniformity" clause), but the suit had originally been brought to, and decided by, the lower courts on grounds that the program, by paying tuition in sectarian schools, violated the "Blaine amendment" to the Florida constitution, which disallows the flow of public funds to religious entities. The effect, however, was similar: in the court's view, private schools, including religious schools, are not legitimate destinations for state public-education dollars.

I'm no attorney, but to my eye the Florida judges made bad education policy. Moreover, they got there via reasoning very different from that which led the U.S. Supreme Court to okay the Cleveland voucher program in the 2002 Zelman decision.

In that case, the justices held that, so long as the parent, not the state, chooses a religious (or other private) school for their child, and so long as their available choices include public and secular schools, the voucher program does not impermissibly advance religion. Their decision allows families the freedom and opportunity to select a religious school for their children if they wish. But they don't have to. (And, in fact, most eligible Florida families did not.)

This brings us to Pennsylvania and the Dover school board ruling, in which Judge Jones said that "intelligent design" is a cousin of creationism and thus a form of religion; hence its inclusion in the public school curriculum violated the First Amendment. When the school board enshrined intelligent design in that school system's science classes, he concluded, parents and children were denied choice. The board decreed that children attending Dover's public schools would learn about intelligent design. And because intelligent design, in Jones's (and my) view, is a form of religion, that's tantamount to ordering Dover students to attend religious schools, like it or not.

In short, Florida's Opportunity Scholarship program allowed people to exit the government-school system if they wanted to attend avowedly private schools that enjoy the curricular freedom and intellectual diversity that America has long associated with education's private sector. By contrast, the Dover school board's policy imported religion into the public schools of that community.

That goes a long way to explaining my divergent reactions. But there's more. For I also believe that America's public schools (and courts) have gone too far in erasing religion. I have no objection to creating opportunities for prayer in public schools, for example, so long as it's silent and voluntary. (A hoary joke points out that student prayer will not be successfully obliterated from public school classrooms until calculus tests are eliminated.) It's fine for religious clubs to meet on school premises, even during the school day. I have no problem with "release time" for religious instruction (as Utah's public schools routinely offer). I think it's absurd to avoid the Bible in literature and philosophy classes, to abjure the role of religion in history and geography classes, or, in current events classrooms, to gloss over the ways in which radicalized Islam is fostering terrorism. It's nuts to obliterate Christmas in favor of nameless "holidays" or to shun the singing of those grand old carols. And I've long held that states should support religious charter schools (though such schools would have to accept state standards and tests).

The purpose of public education isn't to purge religion from places where it appropriately belongs. But religion does not belong in science class. As even the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, recently observed, science is science, and what's taught in its labs and classrooms needs to follow its rules (I almost said canons!) and respect its limits. Intelligent design doesn't do that, any more than does the creationism of which it is a newer, suaver version. Bringing intelligent design into science class is faintly akin to bringing Steinberg's celebrated map of the U.S. (as seen from Manhattan) into geography class. It violates the rules of the discipline.

U.S. kids have plenty of other places - including home, church, Sunday school, the newspaper, and television - to learn that not everybody agrees that evolution and natural selection account for the origin of species and the emergence of humankind. This argument could even enter legitimately into a current affairs class, probably at the high school level, along with other controversies (e.g. Kashmir, the Middle East, nuclear power, global warming) that rock the contemporary world. The point isn't to keep young people from understanding the argument. It's to keep this argument out of the science curriculum, at least in public education. (This point extends to state academic standards, as in Kansas; to state-sanctioned lesson plans, as in Ohio; and to how science is assessed on state tests, on NAEP, etc.) Parents who really don't want their kids to learn biology may home-school them or seek out a private school that teaches intelligent design (or creationism) instead.

Which brings me back to Florida. Parents don't always make wise education decisions for their children, at least not the choices I might wish they'd make. But it's still vital that they have choices. For at least three reasons. First, kids are different, and a school or curriculum that works for one may not work for another. Second, because in a free country, where government doesn't tell us what to feed our kids, how to clothe them, where to take them on vacation, or what God (if any) they should worship, it's unacceptable for government to tell us where and how to educate them. And, finally, because competition is good for education as it is for just about everything else.

Fie on the Florida Supreme Court for demanding "uniformity" in K-12 education. Bravo for Judge Jones for demanding real science in science class.

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