David Harsanyi: The creationism distraction
Eric Meikle, project director at the National Center for Science Education, recently told Politico that he doesn't believe "the function of public education is to prepare students for the turn of the 19th century." Good point. We should stop teaching kids about the wonders of windmills and choo-choo trains and stop demeaning the technological accomplishments of the 20th century. Because guess what; it already sounds a lot like the 19th century in classrooms.
Of course, Meikle wasn't referring to the environmental Cassandras of our public school districts; he was pondering the boogeyman of creationism. And like most efforts to warn us about the menace of religious extremism in schools, all these investigations into "creationism" offer the media a convenient way to express secular unease about the supposed outsize power of zealots while also clouding the purpose of school choice.
Yes, 14 states spend "nearly $1 billion" of taxpayer tuition on "hundreds of religious schools" that teach kids the earth is less than 10,000 years old. This would be more troubling if we didn't spend hundreds of billions every year not teaching millions of kids how to read. Voucher programs offer a wide variety of choices for parents, unlike the closed, failing schools that so many kids are trapped in. As of now, public schools spend about $638 billion on about 55 million students, but only 250,000 students — almost all of them poor — are free to use vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. Of those kids, the vast majority do not attend schools with curricula that feature intelligent design. Yet judging from all the "special investigations" of creationism in schools, you may be under the impression it is the most pressing problem faced by educators.
I suspect that untold numbers of parents would sacrifice their children to the Gods of Creationism if it meant they could attend safe and high-achieving schools. A lot of these schools score well. But that's not the choice, either. Stephanie Simon's piece offers a perfunctory acknowledgment that not all private schools are churning out fundamentalists, but then she spends about two-thirds of her time broadly discussing advocacy of school choice — with the obligatory "Koch-funded" group playing a part — and conflating all that can be conflated about the issue. School choice activism (Politico calls it a "big-money push," which, in the context of union money, is laughable) focuses primarily on an escape route for underprivileged kids and the need to create more competitive public schools, not religious education.
Don't get me wrong; there is a philosophical component. Though I tend to believe that this debate is more often fought in newspapers and on blogs than in real life, according to a Gallup poll and other polls, about half of America believes that humankind was conceived in its present form. If those parents happen not to be rich, should government force them to send their kids to schools that do not comport with their religious convictions? Or, for that matter, should I be forced to send my kids to a school that undermines my beliefs about evolution? Well, vouchers can save both of us. As Michael McShane points out over at National Review, if you're a poor parent in Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas or Kansas, school choice may be your only way to escape from systems that already teach creationism.
Nothing turns voters against vouchers more than the idea of funding a religious education with public money. Many voters are likely unaware that the U.S. Supreme Court says state funds can be used to supplement a religious education if parents are also offered a variety of other choices. The left will ostensibly oppose "public money going to parochial schools," because it best suits their political position, but the often unspoken crisis of vouchers and choice is that government offers parents any choice. That's what this creationist scare in the media is all about.
David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist and the author of "The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy." Follow him on Twitter @davidharsanyi.