A speaker at last week’s faith/education summit in Memphis denounced “knuckleheads under the gold dome” after Georgia’s state senate passed a bill that would allow students with disabilities to receive tax money to attend private, including sectarian, schools.
The Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act passed Wednesday 31-23, largely along party lines. Senators voting for the measure included Cecil Staton, owner of a publishing company for Baptist moderates that has long championed the separation of church and state. Moderates typically oppose school vouchers, believing using tax dollars to fund private Christian schools is unconstitutional.
Timothy McDonald, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, said vouchers often sound good to African-American clergy, until they are asked how children will get to private schools without buses to take them, who will pay for uniforms when they are required and, if vouchers cover no more than 30-40 percent of tuition costs, where will they find the rest of the money.
“I’m concerned about little children with disabilities,” McDonald told 95 clergy and educators at a two-day meeting aimed at building bridges between churches and public schools. “I’m also concerned about the other tens of thousands who will be impacted when you continue to take five and 10 and up to 20 thousand dollars out of the public coffers to give to private schools.”
McDonald said pastors can help educators influence legislation, but they need information. “We don’t know about the details of vouchers,” he said. “We don’t know the details of why class size is so important.”
“Tell me what I need to be saying to the knuckleheads under the gold dome,” he said. “When I go over to the Senate chamber, I will be your voice.”
The Georgia Women Vote blog said the legislation in reality “is nothing more than a wedge in the fight to create a voucher program for private schools in Georgia, an initiative that will siphon critical dollars away from already-cash-strapped public schools.”
Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists and president of the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Staton’s vote demonstrates “how little Baptists in the South–whether moderate or fundamentalist–are concerned for the education of children other than their own.”
“Vouchers are a mechanism for destroying America’s system of common education,” Prescott told EthicsDaily.com. “The best schools will always cost more than the value of a voucher.”
Prescott said vouchers would create another form of the segregated educational systems that existed before the Civil Rights movement. While earlier segregation was based on race, he said, this time it is based on class. “The results will be the same,” he warned, “an inferior education for America’s underclass.”
Staton started Smyth & Helwys, a privately owned business, in 1990 in response to an increasing fundamentalist influence on the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing house, then called the Baptist Sunday School Board and today known as LifeWay Christian Resources.
In a 1993 book, The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC: Moderate Responses to the Fundamentalist Movement, Staton described choosing a name for the company that honored John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, “two early pioneers of Baptist freedom, two individuals who stood for the separation of church and state and the freedom of the soul before God.”
Many of Staton’s Baptist customers oppose school vouchers on religious-liberty grounds.
“Private school vouchers are an important church-state issue,” a paper by the Baptist General Convention of Texas Christian Life Commission begins. “The fundamental principle influencing our opposition to school vouchers is that tax dollars should not be used to finance the teaching of religion.”
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty said vouchers for private religious schools–often labeled “school choice” or “opportunity scholarships”–amount to government support of religion.
“By funding pervasively religious institutions, vouchers promote religion and violate the consciences of those taxpayers who disagree with religious teachings of the schools,” says a position page on the BJC Web site. “Vouchers are bad for the schools, too–by receiving government money they become slaves to government regulation rather than independent voices of religious principles and are open to excessive government entanglement with religion.”
Several Baptists signed a Texas Freedom Network statement opposing any plan that would funnel tax money either directly or indirectly to sectarian schools.
“We believe that directing state funds into private schools is destructive to public education, hazardous to the distinctiveness of private education, and oppressive to many who do not want their tax dollars to fund the teaching of religious views different from their own,” the statement reads.
“We believe that the diversion of public education dollars to religious schools unconstitutionally allows for public funding of religious teachings. Our religious beliefs and institutions are sacred and must be free of the government controls and regulations which appropriately accompany government funds.”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has argued for including religious schools in voucher programs.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.