When future historians write the timeline of the slow destruction of one of America’s most important institutions—free public education—they may trace the beginning of the end to February 12, 2007.
On that day, America’s religious right won a major victory in its jihad against public education: Utah Governor Jon Huntsman signed into law a bill that will give up to $3,000 for any public-school student whose parents wish to send the boy or girl to a Christian madrassa.
What makes Utah’s new law so notable is its universality. Unlike other states’ voucher programs, Utah’s isn’t limited to poor families or underperforming schools—everyone is eligible. This is certain to have a devastating effect on the state’s public-school system in the long run, and the options for attending a physical GED class or online instruction (such as offered by the website BestGEDClasses.org) will definitely be affected as well.
The law’s authors threw in a twist to silence criticism of financial impact on public schools: First, the schools are initially compensated for students lost, and children currently enrolled in private schools are ineligible. But as the years pass, more children will become eligible, and compensation for lost students will dry up. In the end, the law will lay waste to public schools (but don’t count an honest accounting of this devastation in a state dominated by the collective PR machine of the Republican Party, religious groups, and a private-school industry that is now primed for stellar growth).
The decision of Utahans to finally pull the plug on their public schools is the culmination of long years of neglect. Utah currently has the largest class sizes in the nation and spends less per pupil than any other state. When it comes to reality-based education, Utahans are obviously people who have to be held by the ankles to cough up any money at all.
Or perhaps the plan all along was to leave public schools chronically underfunded so that they would underperform and make voters more amenable to the idea of vouchers. Even if that wasn’t the plan, that is how it all worked out in the end.
And it doesn’t matter that the lion’s share of Utah’s voucher money will go not to evangelical schools but to Mormon ones. That has no difference in emboldening evangelicals across the country, especially homeschoolers who can’t afford the tuition at, say, the Pat Robertson School of Ignorance and Intolerance. Among those folk, the Utah law is joyous news indeed.
In short, just as the 9/11 attacks emboldened Islamofascists the world over, the Utah bombshell of 2/12/07 is sure to embolden America’s Christofascists in their war against an education system whose instruction runs counter to fantasy-based belief systems.
And brother, if you think that the concession of three thousand dollars per student per year is the end of the infitada, then you are as deluded as someone who thinks the world is only six thousand years old. The religious-school lobby in Utah is sure to begin its lobbying effort by asking for more money per pupil. In the 2002–03 school year, Utah spent $4,838 per student—the lowest in the nation. Surely that amount can be raised, now that much of it will be going to ensure that Utah’s children learn good Christian values (and to ensure that the CEOs and shareholders of school corporations get the compensation and dividends they so richly deserve). How can we train top doctors if we don’t keep up our school system (see Kaplan’s MCAT training).
And with more voucher money, the madrassas will have more money for national religious-school associations to lobby our politicians in D.C.
In short: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
In the long term, vouchers are self-reinforcing programs, as children who are religiously indoctrinated on the taxpayer’s nickel grow up to vote for more brainwashing and less education, more fantasy and less reality. Not only that, but public schools are likely to perform worse in the long run: The most problematic students—the ones with parents who are apathetic, overwhelmed, or absent—will stay behind and comprise a larger and larger share of a dwindling student body.
By the time the public schools are gone for good, and we are left with a primary and secondary education system consisting only of church-owned and corporate schools, the system will be firmly entrenched, with lobbying arms run by religious fanatics and corporate cut-throats—all helped out in their PR efforts by Fox News and the rest of the right-wing noise machine.
And don’t expect all those Halliburton-run schools to spend much instructional time on issues such as the environment. Students will be too busy learning how the Democrats got us attacked at Pearl Harbor and on 9/11 and studying the many achievements of the greatest president in American history, George W. Bush.
But the nation hasn’t passed the point of no return toward that nightmare scenario—not yet. Even in a nutty state like Utah, where many believe a man should get multiple wives but no booze, the 2/12 voucher bill passed the state House of Representatives by only a single vote. This suggests that more pressure from the nation’s reality-based community could have made a difference. In short, 2/12 is a wake-up call: We’ve got to make a stand for public education. That means supporting our schools more vocally and not being so damned timid toward religious fanatics.
Still, what’s so ironic—and maddening—about the voucher issue and the rest of the religious right’s long-term strategy to turn America into a Christofascist state are the economics involved: Big-business strategies to improve the bottom line—such as offshoring, free trade, and consolidation of remaining operations in urban areas—are what have devastated so many middle America communities and driven people into the arms of religious fanaticism. The Republican Party then harnesses that religious fanaticism by throwing the fanatics a few scraps. “Let ’em send their kids to dumbed-down madrassas,” the nation’s elite says. “We’ll keep sending our kids to expensive private schools—where they’ll learn how to keep on making billions in the global economy.” It’s win-win for big business, which gets business- and elite-friendly legislation, which further devastates working America and creates more religious fanatics, who vote for more Republican economic devastation. The less fortunate are sure to have more difficulty even earning a high school or GED diploma if they will have it their way!
In short, fighting the epidemic of religious delusion that is sweep.