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Column: A Dreadful Choice

For the Valley News
Published: 4/28/2017 11:18:53 PM
Modified: 4/29/2017 9:00:46 PM

It was mildly encouraging to read that the New Hampshire Legislature hit the pause button last week on the dreadful school choice bill, but it hit the wrong key. Delete is what is needed. This school choice movement is like whack-a-mole. Strike it down in one place and it will pop up again in another.

There are both educational and constitutional reasons to reject this and other manifestations of the national school choice campaign, growing rapidly all over the country. These past two weeks brought troubling news on both fronts.

On the education front, President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos began the inevitable dismantling of any substantial federal role in education. Citing local control and states’ rights, they signaled a rapid and full abandonment of a commitment to equitable public education for all.

Education is about to become a free-market commodity, as I’ve written before. It’s already partially the case in many places, including Louisiana, Arizona and Michigan. So-called “choice” is driving voucher programs, where parents are able to choose online schools, for-profit charter schools and religious schools, paid for by tax dollars. Folks in affluent communities can, and probably will, sustain decent public schools for their kids. Other affluent families can take a voucher and apply it to a much more expensive private school.

The losers are poor children, particularly children of color, who will have two options: bad and worse. Public schools in poor communities are losing students and funding. Small handouts in the name of choice are driving the other poor children to shamefully inadequate charter and private schools, many of which are scams.

Anyone who believes this is really about innovation and freedom is terribly naive. Very wealthy folks are spending a great deal of money to end education as a public right. It is, after all, a $700 billion market, and our American plutocrats are quite certain that the market fixes everything. The Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation (Walmart money) and a long list of billionaire hedge-funders are at the point of this attack.

For example, a vicious propaganda group called Families for Excellent Schools has been driving school choice initiatives in New York City and is now moving national. Several years ago, 95 percent of their funding came from the Walton Family Foundation. But they have succeeded in convincing gullible folks that they are a grassroots organization dedicated to helping poor kids of color. Space doesn’t allow a full exposition, but I’ll leave it to each reader to consider how likely it is that Walmart cares deeply about poor families of color.

I, and many others, have commented on Secretary DeVos’ well-documented commitment to turn schools into places that advance “God’s Kingdom.” She has a record of animus toward public education. Like other Trump appointees, she was hired to undermine the agency she leads. Until now, the establishment clause of the Constitution, aka the separation of church and state, has restrained those who would turn every school into Sunday School, but that wall is under siege.

We must take very seriously that the schools DeVos supports question evolution, deny climate change, see gender and sexuality through a bigoted, mean-spirited lens, and want to indoctrinate America’s children into their primitive, dangerous views — with our tax dollars. Families are free in America to choose that kind of education for their children, but not with an endorsement or financial support from our government.

This anti-science agenda has many architects. On Wednesday, The New York Times reported a campaign by the Heartland Institute, an organization devoted to climate change denial, to influence every science teacher in America. They mailed over 200,000 glossy brochures. They want to convince a generation of children that climate change is not human-caused. The Heartland Institute has been heavily funded by the fossil fuel and tobacco industries, both with less-than-pristine records of commitment to good science and human health. When DeVos was nominated, the Heartland Institute was ecstatic: “This is a promising development as DeVos is an effective and experienced leader.” The Times previously reported that a DeVos group provides funding to the Heartland Institute. The dots are not hard to connect.

On the religious front, the Supreme Court heard a case titled Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer. The court seems to have delayed hearing arguments until the very devout Justice Neil Gorsuch was confirmed.

The case seems simple at first glance. A state agency in Missouri denied Trinity Lutheran funding to resurface a pre-school playground, citing the Missouri Constitution, which explicitly prohibits funding of any religious organization. Trinity Lutheran sued, claiming their rights under the First Amendment (freedom of religious expression) and 14th Amendment (equal treatment under the law) were violated. They lost in lower court and appeals court and appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

I studied the case and the transcript of the oral arguments. With Gorsuch seated, the church will probably win and the floodgates will be opened. The case is not ultimately about playgrounds. It is the judicial piece of a three-pronged campaign to obliterate the wall of separation and allow the further entanglement of religion, specifically and intentionally Christianity, in government and public life. Legislatures are doing their part by enabling school choice and abandoning a commitment to educational equity. And the president and secretary of education are swinging their own heavy sledgehammers.

I feel like Cassandra, screaming into the abyss. This insidious movement is happening with too little resistance. If we lose public education to this religious, anti-science, profit-driven movement, we will never get it back.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school. He can be reached at

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