The state of Florida has become the first state to pass a bill enacting vouchers in public education. Under the bill students will be able to take the money the state would spend on their education in a year (roughly $4,000) and use it to attend any school they choose-public or private.
As a public school teacher with over 40 years experience, and as a concerned Christian adult, I have considerable numbers of reservations about the whole voucher concept and its impact on everyone. I have heard the arguments in support of vouchers, and I know that many Christian parents think it is a great idea. It sounds good to say that a person's tax money for student education should allow them choices more in keeping with what they believe. It is my experience that the politicians and most parents do not understand the implications of vouchers, and before using them I would encourage parents and private school managers to look into the following:
1. Government money means government control. Many years ago a small private religious college I was acquainted with accepted a government grant to build an auditorium. Federal money paid for the building that was desperately needed by the school. This college required students to participate in chapel everyday. After the auditorium was built and dedicated, they started their normal routine of requiring students to go to chapel and were told they could not use the new auditorium for chapel because that would consist of an illegal combination of church and state. The school ended up raising money to buy out the government grant so that they could use their own auditorium for religious purposes.
Most private church affiliated schools have standards which attract parents who want their kids taught in a certain way. Schools accepting voucher money will have to conform to the laws of the government. Religious assemblies and instruction will be quite limited. Excluding a student on the basis of his beliefs or non-beliefs would not be possible. In Fort Lauderdale the Westminster Academy found that they could not require students to have born again parents as had been the case in the past. If the school is considered an extension of the theology of what the church believes, it cannot accept vouchers.
2. Damage to public schools is inevitable. If the $4,000 the state of Florida pays for each student's education is given to a private school, then the public school is not getting it. As a public school teacher, I am 100% sure that the American public from the politicians to the school boards have no idea what I contend with on a daily basis. I have special needs kids in all my classes with about 250 out of 1500 kids in our high school being in special education classes. I have had as many as 12 students in a class of 26 wearing ankle braclets as they were monitored by the courts. Many of my students have children of their own or have diseases like Herpes and AIDS. Violence is a daily circumstance in the lives of many of my students.
The question is what is to happen to all of these young people if the few stable families we have leave? Do we want to deal with them as a part of a broad based educational system or do we want to deal with them at the Mall or in prison? Will voucher schools be forced to accept them? If the public schools become 100% special needs kids, who is going to want to be a teacher in those schools. What happens when a voucher school is forced to take a child who is violent because the public school closed? Who pays for the special needs kid who needs a chair lift to get to a second floor classroom in a church operated school? The courts recently ruled that public schools must supply all needs for special needs kids-even when the cost is exorbitant. Will voucher schools be able to do this?
The point is that when we pay taxes we do not just pay taxes to support our own child. Our tax money addresses problems and situations in our society that no individual could handle. When we had a son born with mental retardation, blindness, and cerebral palsy, there was no private school which could meet his needs. Even our experiences with the church in getting help in his religious education were universally negative.
It may be that a restructuring of how we deal with these situations is needed, but a public school building constructed for 2,000 students requires a certain amount of money to maintain, heat, and administrate. If the enrollment drops to 1,000 due to vouchers and all of the students who leave take their $4,000 with them, the school has $4,000,000 less to operate with. This has to result in damage to the only institution attempting to deal with the needs of many young people in our society.
3. Vouchers are divisive in nature and unity is needed to solve today's problems. The Bible teaches us over and over again that God hates division. Jesus prayed for unity, the apostles condemned division, and the example given in the Bible of a fully functioning church was the one in Acts 2 where a united spirit prevailed. A friend of mine who teaches in Florida shared with me the fact that in his community of 12,000 people there were 21 private schools starting up using vouchers as the basis of their funding. Some were set up along racial lines, some along religious lines, and some along political lines. None of them were planning to take special needs kids and all of them had special classes promoting their own ideology.
The usual response to this last sentence is "Yes, I want my kid to be taught what I believe." My question is whether this type of education is indoctrination or education? I can appreciate the private school that teaches morality or even a religious doctrine as a class, but did not God give this responsibility to mothers and fathers? The voucher system will allow satanists, witches, voodoo teachings, cults of all kinds, political extremists, and even sexual deviants to have schools to teach their views. Innocent kids will become pawns as these groups compete to get the most kids possible from parents who do not care what their kids are taught (which is a huge percentage). Society as a whole will suffer immeasurably from such an arrangement. One also has to realize that what society needs kids to be able to do has changed. Our world does not need people who can memorize and then regurgitate what they have memorized-we have computers that can do that. We need students who can think and reason and solve problems. This is true in religion too. Memorizing scripture is nice, but it does not mean the scripture has any affect on the person's life. You can quote the whole Bible from memory, but if you do not know how to treat people it is not worth much. In addition to these skills, students have to be able to use and apply technology. The facilities, staff, and logistical support needed to do this in the secular world are enormous and expensive. Walk into a modern high school and look at the chemistry labs, the computer labs, the robotics labs, and the technology labs and ask yourself what it takes to provide for the needs of kids in the twenty-first century. Look at the special education equipment used for kids who need to develop a marketable skill as much as anyone else and ask yourself how this could ever be done without a unified front from the community.
4. The best change comes from within. There are two basic attitudes that exist in situations where change is needed. One attitude is to pick up and move. The second one is to stick it out and bring about solutions. I am convinced that there are times when moving is the only option that will work, but I think those times are few and far between. Our society has increasingly encouraged people with marital problems to "pick up and move" rather than use God's Word and servants to work it out. The more I see of church splits the more convinced I am that personalities are the primary issues and not doctrine. Over and over we see split off groups practicing the same doctrinal practices as the group they left.
The picture the Bible gives of Christians in the first century is a picture of people who made things better. They enjoyed the favor of all the people (Acts 2:47) and had "a good reputation with outsiders" (1 Timothy 3:7). When Jesus described those who would be His followers in Matthew 5:38-48 He did not portray them as people who were divisive and separated themselves geographically from everyone else. The picture we get is one of positive, constructive, sacrificial folks who bring about good things. There is an enormous need for people to get involved in addressing the needs of today's youth. The values and attitudes Jesus taught are the only things that can bring about positive change for all school-age children.
We would suggest that there are good biblical reasons not to use vouchers, but Christian parents must evaluate their own child and their local situation before making a decision. There may be some local situations that make vouchers the best option, but intelligent informed adults need to make that decision and not follow the herd. All Christians need to be aware of the implications before getting involved in a voucher funded church school We need to lead, but to lead carefully and in an informed way so that we bring good things to our children and to our community.
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