Religious fundamentalism threatens American public education (and a lot more)

Betsy DeVos is gone now, but for North Carolina,“Devosism,” is not. Throughout her tenure as education secretary, DeVos sought to convince Congress to allocate $5 billion in tax credits to fund scholarships to private, religious, and homeschools. These “scholarships”—vouchers—were a central theme of her time in office and, now, Rebecca Klein notes, numerous state legislatures are continuing to push this agenda into 2021. The Network for Public Education flagged efforts in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire to dramatically expand voucher programs. In North Carolina, the legislature moved during its first week back in session this year to expand vouchers.

Because vouchers siphon money away from cash-starved public schools, it is often assumed that this is a public school problem. In North Carolina, the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) has led the fight, along with a parents group that filed suit against the state’s voucher program, arguing it was unconstitutional.

This battle, however, is about substantially more than “choice” or even privatization, and concerns everyone in the academy—every historian, scientist, anthropologist, political scientist, theater professor, and the rest—because Betsy DeVos is the proud standard-bearer of the Christian Dominionists, part of a once-fringe set of religious extremists now at the heart of the effort to reshape American public education. DeVos and other Dominionists see the school system as the ultimate symbol of communal liberalism and want it replaced with private schools that will usher in a new kingdom of God.

Betsy DeVos

These vouchers, therefore, threaten more than colleges of education or the public schools they ostensibly serve. The curricula of many of these schools threaten American ideals of multiculturalism, democracy, and science. A study conducted by North Carolina’s League of Women Voters examined what was being taught in these voucher-funded “schools” in the state and discovered that “76.7% of voucher funding is going to schools with a literal biblical worldview that affects all areas of the curriculum…[and] educators have concluded that this biblical worldview curriculum does not prepare these students for 21st century colleges or careers.”

Indeed, the curricula seem designed to prepare students for life in the thirteenth century. Many of the textbooks come from Pensacola Christian College’s (PCC) Abeka series or were published by Bob Jones University. Children are taught from science texts published by a company which considers it an “article of faith” that, “God created the heavens and the earth in six literal days,” and rejects “the man-made theory of evolution occurring over millions of years and believe[s] that the earth is approximately 6,000 years old.”

When Dr. Lawrence Kessler of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill examined the Abeka world history textbook’s Asia unit, the scholar literally found “factual errors on every page,” including references to Chinese intellectual traditions Confucianism and Taoism as “false religions.” History textbooks from the series ascribe divine providence as explanations for human events.

As important as these dreadful curricula are, the lawsuit filed by North Carolina parents argues, “the voucher program directs funds to schools ‘that divide communities on religious lines, disparage many North Carolinians’ faiths and identities, and coerce families into living under religious dictates.’” Raleigh’s News and Observer notes that many of the schools receiving these voucher funds “have policies barring the enrollment of or allowing the expulsion of students who refute the school’s statements of faith” and that students “can be barred from some schools if their parents’ beliefs don’t conform.”

In short, North Carolina taxpayers are subsidizing superstition and underwriting bigotry. While it is certainly true these vouchers will drain funds from public schools, all of society loses when education is mocked in this way.

The threat, therefore, extends well beyond the damage being inflicted on public education. These voucher programs subsidize “education” that makes America less safe for religious and ethnic minorities, makes it more difficult to confront global issues such as climate change, and encourages the kind of Luddite behavior we have witnessed during the pandemic  in battles over masks, social distancing, vaccines, and more.

The responsibility for confronting this issue falls on more than just colleges of education or public school policymakers and teachers. Perhaps that is a good thing, since North Carolina’s colleges of education are conspicuously silent on the issue. Higher education—every level of it—can no longer stand aloof from this critical policy issue. Tar Heel tax dollars are being funneled into the creation of a Tar Heel Taliban, and Tar Heels—all of us—will pay a terrible price. The danger is too great, the threat too real. We can no longer accept taxpayer funds being channeled to curricula that undermine American ideals of pluralism, democracy, and tolerance. The university has a role to play in the defense of these ideals—the entire university—and the time is now.

J. Allen Bryant is an Associate Professor of elementary education at Appalachian State University.

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