When President Trump went outside of normal accredited education sources to choose non-academic, non-teacher Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education, he was choosing to embrace her longtime crusade for privately run charter schools over more traditional government-funded public schools.
Despite her efforts to build private school funding into the next federal budget, she had not yet succeeded, but she has sworn to continue her fight to pay for private schools, many with religious affiliations, to be paid for by taxpayers, even when it comes at the detriment of public schools.
With DeVos determined to spread the taxpayers wealth to many more charter and private schools, the website HuffPost set out to fill in some of the gaps with what they describe as the first in a series of investigative articles on the politics and curriculum of “schools that participate in private school choice programs,” meaning they get taxpayer funding.
The headline on their story speaks to what they found: “Voucher Schools Championed By Betsy DeVos Can Teach Whatever They Want. Turns Out They Teach Lies.”
At present, most taxpayer funds come to them through state-run school choice voucher programs now available in 14 states and the District of Columbia, or through tax credit options available in 17 states.
That includes about 400,000 students nationwide currently in schools where they can use government-funded vouchers or receive tax credits, according to the education reform group EdChoice.
Statistics on how much taxpayers are providing these schools are sketchy, but HuffPost found that in Indiana, where Vice President Pence was governor, about 4,240 students received $16 million in scholarships to attend Christian schools during the 2016-17 school year, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
While in many ways these private schools look from the outside like public schools – they have teachers, classrooms, and students – what they are teaching in many, if not most cases is dramatically different, and often counters what in the secular world is considered scientific and historical facts.
There is little comprehensive national data available that shows how many charter schools exist, let alone what they teach, or what standards they use to educate impressionable children.
HuffPost set out to create the first database of private schools in states that offer taxpayer funding to those students and came up with a list of about 8,000 schools in 25 of the 27 states that offer voucher and tax credit programs.
They then tracked down the affiliation of each school and found about 75 percent were religious-based, mostly Christian or Catholic – with about 2 percent Jewish and 1 percent Muslim. About six schools said they were non-religious but use a curriculum created by the Church of Scientology.
By far the largest percentage were those that taught non-Catholic Christian education (about 42 percent), so HuffPost focused in this first article in their series on those.
In those schools (32 percent), the most commonly used textbooks came from one or more of three publishers – Akeba, Bob Jones or ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) – in at least one subject or grade.
While government funds go to many of these schools, there are few if any standards for what they must teach or testing to see if the students are prepared for jobs and life.
“Most states have little oversight on the curriculum used in schools that participate in the private school choice programs,” reports HuffPost. “Some states have zero regulations on the topic. Others require private schools to follow the state’s broad-based content standards but specify little else.”
So what do they teach?
Most provide a fundamentalist Christian point of view which is taught as dogma that cannot be challenged, in schools that do not encourage a lot of free thinking or examination of outside sources.
“These materials inaccurately portray events in Muslim and Catholic history,” reports HuffPost, “while perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes. The materials speak disparagingly of Native Americans and Native Culture.”
Any denomination from religion outside their own is seen as unacceptable, and described in the most negative ways, including Catholicism.
The schools also universally denounce homosexuality and in some cases even forbid things like arts education or dancing. Shades of “Footloose!”
“A Bob Jones high school world history textbook portrays Islam as a violent religion and contains a title, ‘Islam and Murder.’ In the same textbook when describing the Catholic Reformation, Catholic leaders are described as failing ‘to see that the root of their problems was doctrinal error.'”
An expert on religions, David Brockman, a non-resident scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, examined what HuffPost found and said he believed most “Protestants would likely disagree with the theological and historical narrative portrayed.”
“The textbook simply distorts history,” wrote Brockman about one book he examined. “And given the biblical command not to bear false witness, I would question whether a distorted history is consistent with Christian teaching.”
The HuffPost investigation also found a large number of former students who said this kind of private education did not prepare them for the real world or for jobs, and in many cases left them with deep psychological scars for the rest of their lives.
For instance, almost all of the Christian schools teach creationism – that God created the world and mankind – and said that the science around global warming and the climate crisis is false. One student said when she left for a traditional college, she was shocked to learn that climate science, which she had been taught was a hoax, was based on facts.
“When I took my first real science class,” she recalled, “a million light bulbs went off. Everything finally made sense.”
The schools have been charged by critics with not providing a proper fact-based education, and in some cases called what they teach “dangerous tools for the schools to wield.”
There is much more in the HuffPost report that is disturbing, including other first-person experiences showing how students can be hurt in a way that impacts their entire life.
For generations, there have been religious schools nad other fringe groups that taught what they wanted to their children because the American way is to let them do as they wish.
The difference now is that Trump and DeVos and their supporters want all American taxpayers to subsidize these educational systems that do not meet the highest standards, do not properly prepare students, and perpetuate false stereotypes and hatred for other groups, religions, and races that do longterm damage to our society.
So stopping Trump and DeVois is not just a political matter, it is an urgent issue that relates to what our future citizens think and the kind of world we live in. It is, no doubt, a real danger, to the peaceful survival of our diverse society in an ever more complicated world.