A foreshadowing of the debate that could result from the state’s recently passed charter schools bill, and proposed tuition voucher programs, played out last week in a free-wheeling panel discussion that touched heavily on issues of race and religion.
Convened by the Anti-Defamation League’s Lawyers Division, the panel brought together staunch advocates of charter schools and other programs that could aid religious education (such as the Rev. Floyd Flake and noted Jewish constitutional lawyer Nathan Lewin) with such critics as United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and church-state separation watchdog Barry Lynn.
New York recently passed a charter school bill allowing the creation of 100 public institutions that would be independent of local school boards and could conceivably be run by religious groups, although the state law makes such control highly difficult. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has called for a voucher program that would provide public funds for the secular portion of a private school education to some parents.
One panelist argued that support of charter schools and vouchers relates to a belief that religious instruction is the cure for many inner-city ailments. Michael Meyers, director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, referred to the trend as "a very fashionable attempt on the part of liberals and conservatives whose pastime is repairing ‘Negroes.’"
Meyers, who is black, said such views were ultimately harmful, not helpful to race relations. "Blacks that I know do not want religion forced upon them in any guise by public officials or religious officials."
Flake, the former Queens congressman and pastor of the Allen African Methodist Episcopal church in St. Albans, countered that it is the obligation of community leaders, including clergy, to pick up responsibility for educating youth if it has not been fulfilled by the municipality, as he believes occurs in minority areas. Rev. Flake denied such a task amounts to religious recruitment.
"There is an assumption that if a religious entity develops an educational institution that teaches secular education that what they are doing is proselytizing," said the reverend, whose popular church school has been noted for excellence. "In point of fact, what they are doing is taking religion and using it as a kind of moral tool to help people have a better understanding of life issues in a holistic construct.
"People who do not get a quality education become those who in some way destroy the fabric of society and the ability of people to live in community."
But Lynn, a minister and director the Washington D.C.-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, argued that religious indoctrination was the basic foundation of parochial institutions. "The principal purpose in running those schools is to propose a religious value. I don’t think we can talk about government subsidies to schools that start as religious schools and then expect them to eliminate all religion … or act is if they twist religion to reflect a generalized worldview."
Weingarten, whose organization of 130,000 educators conditionally supports charter schools but strenuously opposes vouchers, charged that such programs were gaining favor because of the changing ethnic make-up of the public school system.
"Public education is the gate of opportunity, and that gate can’t be lost when our public education system these days is a majority minority system," she said. Public efforts would be better focused on improving existing schools rather than creating incentives for parents to abandon them, said Weingarten, which amounts to "letting the government off the hook" in its responsibility to provide quality education.
"That is not Rev. Flake’s job, it is the job of government."
Lewin, who has defended the Kiryas Joel chasidic school district in upstate New York from challenges on constitutional grounds, argued that government alone cannot successfully instill proper moral values in students.
"There’s no reason to believe that the only truth with regard to education emanates from the government," said Lewin. "The point precisely of charter schools and vouchers systems is that government does not have all the answers and, as a matter of fact, frequently has the wrong answers."
Lewin charged that parents who are forced to pay for a private secular education on top of taxes to support public schools are "paying a fee for being Jewish."
Lynn and Weingarten argued that voucher programs implemented in other cities and countries have fallen short of their goals. Test scores among students left behind in public schools have plummeted, said Lynn, while the scores for the children now in private schools increased marginally, or not at all.
"If you want to take at-risk, inner-city students and make their lives better, devote money to programs we know will work," said Lynn. "This is a very expensive experiment."
But Lewin countered that just as ending monopolies in areas such as telecommunication has resulted in better quality service and more choices, so would competition in education raise standards.
"There will be nothing better for the public schools," said Lewin, "than if parents can decide on their own that … they’re going to take their money and tell the public school administration that if that school is no good, I’m going to send my child to the Jewish school, the Catholic school or the secular school around the corner."