Sunday, March 11, 2012

Wisconsin Gov. Walker Should Learn from JFK, not Rick Santorum

Republican Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said he wanted to throw up after reading JFK’s speech on the separation of church and state. One wonders if he would jump for joy over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s pro-voucher policies that have increased public funding of religious schools.

The Milwaukee voucher program, the country’s oldest and largest, has been disguised as “choice.” But at its core, it is about transferring public dollars out of the public schools and into private religious schools.

Consider these comments from a recent study on the Milwaukee voucher program, where 85 percent of the 23,198 voucher students are in religious schools.

“The role of religion seemed to be pervasive in almost all of the sectarian schools we visited,” according to the study by the School Choice Demonstration Project of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. “In fact, it was hard to distinguish religious activities from other activities given the common occurrence of class periods starting with the reading of a Bible verse or prayer and other religious topics areas being dispersed throughout class lectures.”

Although Gov. Walker cut public education funding more than any time in Wisconsin’s history, he championed the expansion of the Milwaukee private school voucher program, with an estimated $128 million in taxpayer dollars this year going to religious schools.

Walker and Santorum’s policies stand in sharp contrast to the position of President John F. Kennedy.

During the 1960 campaign, anti-Catholic prejudice threatened to derail Kennedy’s presidential hopes, with accusations that Kennedy’s allegiance to the Pope in Rome would supersede his responsibilities to the American people. In what has long been considered a watershed speech, Kennedy directly addressed the issue in remarks in Houston. 

Kennedy said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president — should he be Catholic — how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

The tempest caused by Santorum’s theocratic remarks focused on the overall issue of separating church and state. Few commentators have noted the Kennedy’s specific reference to public funding of religious education, which at the time generally was known as “parochiaid” in the form of tuition tax credits. The bottom line is that Kennedy rejected such initiatives and said, without equivocation or caveats, that the separation of church and state is “absolute”, and that “no church or church schools is granted any public funds or political preference” [emphasis added].

Lawmakers in Wisconsin, unfortunately, did not follow Kennedy’s advice; like the U.S. Supreme Court, they fell prey to the twisted logic that the voucher goes to the parents, not to the religious school, even though the voucher checks are delivered directly to the school as a single payment and the parents never see the money.

Gov. Walker has made matters worse by expanding the voucher program. It approaches, in size,  the state’s second largest school districts  — but with minimal public oversight or accountability. 

The recent study of the voucher program by the University of Arkansas Center on School Choice shows how the Wisconsin voucher program is fundamentally a public subsidy of private religious education.

In the 2010-2011 school year, for example, 90 of the 105 schools in the Milwaukee program were religious and another seven were “non-religious with a religious tradition.” Only eight schools were non-religious—less than 8 percent of all voucher schools. Nearly 85 percent of all voucher students were enrolled in religious schools, primarily Catholic and Lutheran schools.

Since the voucher program’s beginning in 1990, there have been ongoing concerns about the public funding of religion. To ease such concerns, the voucher program has nominally required that students be able to “opt out” of any religious curriculum or activities at a voucher school. According to the University of Arkansas study, however, staff at some of the religious schools are openly disdainful of the “opt out” requirement and basically ignore it. 

As one teacher “unapologetically explained” to the study’s researchers, “If you don’t believe in God, sorry about that, but it’s a religious school and I’m going to talk about it.”  

The study went on to note that the staff at explicitly religious voucher schools “openly acknowledge their religiosity [and] tend to expect students to accept that religion as a major aspect of their school experience.”

One should not be surprised by a major finding of the study that “the role of religion seemed to be pervasive in almost all of the sectarian schools we visited.”

JFK called for an absolute and complete separation of church and state, and explicitly rejected any public funding of religious schools. Hopefully, Santorum’s comments will be a wake up call to realize how much we have allowed right-wing conservatives and religious ideologues to distort our public discourse and undermine our democratic ideals.


  1. It seems like the idea of the voucher is simlar to federal financial aid going to a private college. Seeing as that was likely one of the ways the door to public funds in private schools was opened, shouldn't we fight to close that door too?

  2. Let's be consistent and stay out of other cultural hotspots as well.

    1. So you agree that the government should get out of the business of subsidizing private colleges too?