K-12 Education Funding Hinges on Appeal Now Before Supreme Court

Mackinac Center Official Says Vast Change in Schools is Gaining Speed

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market/limited government Midland "think tank," is working to educate the public on the merits of school choice. This initiative would allow the use of public funds to educate all children, using tax dollars no matter who delivers the service. The movement is described as "unlimited school choice" and is modeled after the nation's higher education system.

Vouchers and tuition tax credits for parents, which would, in effect, provide public funding for private and religious schools, are the flash points in this fiery debate. A court decision favoring universal public funding of education would drastically change the K-12 landscape and, potentially, the shape of American society.

Brian Carpenter, director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, speaking recently at the Rotary Club of Bay City, says a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court will impact this question.

The case, Joshua Davey vs. Gov. Gary Locke of the state of Washington, and state education officials, is on appeal. It challenges a Washington law that denies a state-funded college scholarship solely because of the student's decision to pursue a degree in theology.

Critics of public K-12 education in this country have long asserted that something is structurally wrong with the system. The problem, according to one view, is that many parents are not fully involved in the education of their children. That leads to a variety of ills befalling public K-12 education, from low achievement to high dropout rates, which drastically affects the fabric of American society.

Advocates of change in education now are charging that public education policy is fundamentally "un-American," unconstitutional and dangerous because only "the state" is allowed to define the truth.

The Davey appeal points to the First Amendment, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Attorneys for Davey, from the American Center for Law and Justice, of Mobile, Ala., and Virginia Beach, Va., argue: "Thus, the state may neither favor nor disfavor religion. A law targeting religious beliefs as such is never permissible."

Carpenter noted that in the past decade charter schools have moved K-12 education closer to "deregulation and freedom from administrative controls." A decade ago Michigan was the eighth state to allow charter schools; since then 27 other states have followed suit. About 4 percent of Michigan's 1.7 million K-12 students are now educated in charter schools, according to Carpenter.

"All parents should have the power to choose the best education for their children," says Carpenter, calling unlimited school choice "perhaps the most significant trend in public education."

The Mackinac Center seeks to improve education through free-market competition in schools, he notes. Proponents of this view have long pointed to the higher education system, which allows the student to choose any institution no matter what the philosophical orientation. The prime example of how this works is the educational benefits granted by the military, known generically as the "G.I. Bill."

Carpenter calls a 2002 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court allowing vouchers for low-income parents to educate their children in Cleveland, Ohio, "the most significant since Brown vs. Board of Education," which dictated an end to school segregation by race. Six states offer educational vouchers in some form, he said. "Significant research indicates this will raise the performance of all schools," said Carpenter. Public attitudes are beginning to change from the grass roots, he added.

The idea of the state defining truth, which came about when Massachusetts educator Horace Mann established education as a central function of government, has caused trouble from the beginning, according to Carpenter. A basic problem comes because children are assigned to schools on the basis of where they live. This is not only unfair because of the uneven quality of schools in various neighborhoods, but also inadvertently sends the message that the involvement of parents is not that important, he said. "We need to restore the incentive principle," Carpenter said.

Since public education was a "generic amalgamation of Protestant doctrine," Roman Catholics were discriminated against, he observed. "The prevailing world view was Protestant and no other was taught at taxpayer expense," he explained. Social acceptance of bigotry resulted in violence like the Philadelphia Bible Riots in the 1870s and caused Catholics to form their own schools.

Speaker of the House James G. Blaine, onetime presidential candidate, proposed the so-called "Blaine Amendment" to the U.S. Constitution to prevent tax dollars from being under the control of any religious sect. The amendment was not adopted but was included in the constitutions of 14 states after 1875.

Michigan was not one of them. But our state’s "Council Against Parochiaid" in 1970 won voter approval for Article 8, Section II of the Michigan Constitution, which has become, in effect, our Blaine Amendment, said Carpenter.

"It is not in our best interest to have the state say what the truth is," he asserts. "It is the inherent right of free people to answer that question themselves."

It's impossible to separate the worldview from the academic view, not only in education but also in other vital questions such as the origins of mankind, human sexual orientation, art and the environment, he said.

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Note: Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times. His article appeared as a feature story on MyBayCity.com on Thursday, Sept. 18.