Your Tax Dollars at Work Supporting Religion

At the risk of putting a damper on your secular holiday cheer, you should know that your tax dollars are paying for private religious schools. In fact, providing the opportunity for parents to use government funds to send their children to religious schools is a stated priority of the US Department of Education under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—and she’s getting lots of help in Congress.

Just last night, the Senate passed a tax bill that includes an amendment introduced by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) to provide a tax subsidy to parents saving to pay private school tuition.

Long before she was appointed to Trump’s cabinet, DeVos was a leader in the school choice movement, expressing her aims for education by stating, “Our desire is…to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom.”

State government funds support religious schools in two ways: voucher programs and tax-credit programs. Vouchers funnel financial aid to parents to pay for private school tuition. Tax credits are offered to both individuals and corporations who donate to scholarship programs that support students at private schools. Most often these private schools are religious. In some areas, religious schools are the only type of private school.

According to Huffington Post, which is running a series on government funding of private schools, fourteen states and the District of Columbia currently have voucher programs, while seventeen have tax-credit systems.

Unfortunately, no federal agencies comprehensively track the curriculums being used by private schools participating in choice programs or the schools’ religious affiliations. Some states track this information, while others do not. The Huffington Post analysis noted that  “about 75 percent of voucher schools across the country are religious―usually Christian or Catholic, with about 2 percent identifying as Jewish and 1 percent identifying as Muslim. There were gray areas: At least six schools identified as non-religious but used a curriculum created by the founder of the Church of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard.”

The fact that government dollars—state and local—support religious schools raises serious issues pertaining to the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution. In addition, these schools are sometimes unaccredited and therefore unregulated, which means they aren’t required to follow the same rules as public schools with regard to safety or curriculum. As a result, science classes may teach creationism and geology may cover just 6,000 years.

Further, religious schools don’t face the same rules guarding against discrimination. Some religious schools, for instance, openly discriminate against LGBTQ people, teaching that gay or gender-nonconforming students are sinners and refusing to hire LGBTQ teachers.

DeVos supporters have been disappointed so far, however, to find that her high profile has not meant success in directing much federal, as opposed to state, money into religious schools. According to a recent article in the New York Times, “Funding requests for private school vouchers and charter schools that Ms. DeVos said would jump-start ‘the most ambitious expansion of education choice in our nation’s history’ have largely been ignored by Congress. A [state-level] tax-credit scholarship program…was supposed to go national—but has not taken flight.”

In the Republican tax bill passed by the Senate last night (and being revoted on in the House today), Cruz’s amendment expands 529 education savings accounts. Previously used by parents to save money for college tuition, these savings accounts will now also provide significant tax benefits for funds used to cover private school tuition. At the same time, the tax bill eliminates the deduction for state and local taxes, some of which cover education.

“It’s crazy that we’re eliminating the ability of people to deduct their state and local taxes that go directly to local services, including schools…while at the same time providing a $10,000 incentive for folks to send their kids to private schools,” said Sasha Pudelski, assistant director for policy and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators.

Not surprisingly the National Catholic Educational Association said of the provision, “It’s a good first step.” Education Week’s “Politics K-12” blog called the amendment “the biggest win so far for school choice advocates on the federal front this year since Trump took office.”

However successful DeVos, Donald Trump, and Congress are in directing actual federal money to private religious schools, it’s clear that DeVos’s main goal in office is “education choice” which, for her, means religious education. Your state, local, and now federal tax dollars already fund religious—almost entirely Christian—instruction.  If DeVos and her supporters have their way, more federal school funding will follow that lead and the education of our children will suffer. Earlier this month, speaking to the tenth annual gathering of the conservative Foundation for Excellence in Education, DeVos proclaimed, “I’m just getting started.”