Sunday, June 8, 2014

Which Side Are You On? Should public policy promote discrimination?

St. Marcus, a private voucher school, wants to buy Lee Elementary, a public school. The decision comes before Milwaukee’s Common Council in coming weeks.

Taxpayer funding of private schools raises any number of problems. But this particular controversy rests on one essential question:

Should public policy promote discrimination, in particular discrimination against gay people and women?

Last week, supporters of democracy and equality won a well-deserved victory when a federal judge overturned Wisconsin’s ban on gay marriage. The victory was the culmination of decades of struggle, with supporters of gay marriage often dismissed or criticized in the early years.

The controversy over St. Marcus raises similar issues of equality versus discrimination. Will politicians who support gay marriage have the courage to say “no” to the sale of Lee Elementary to St. Marcus?

St. Marcus is a private voucher school that is connected with St. Marcus Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is part of the conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran synod. The synod’s core beliefs include:

  • Homosexuality is a sin
  • Living together outside of marriage is a sin
  • Women are not to hold positions of authority over men. (The St. Marcus School Council is appointed by the church’s all-male board of directors, and the school council chair must be a male. Women are not allowed to vote for the church’s board of directors.) 

As a religious-based school, St. Marcus and its teachers are expected to defend and promote the synod’s beliefs.

If the Common Council approves the sale of Lee Elementary to St. Marcus, the voucher school hopes to enroll an additional 850 students who will be taught the synod’s beliefs. An estimated $5 million more per year in taxpayer dollars will be used to promote the synod’s beliefs.

This is the question the Common Council faces. Will it approve the sale to St. Marcus, knowing that it is thus using public policy to promote and expand publicly funded discrimination?

Or will council members do the right thing and say “no” to publicly funded discrimination?

Let me make it clear. This is not a question of religious freedom. I was raised Lutheran (in a more liberal synod) and my wife was raised Catholic. We have any number of relatives who disagree with our beliefs, and we disagree with theirs. It’s no problem. We all respect religious freedom.

St. Marcus should be free to promote its religious views. But not with taxpayer dollars and a public policy stamp of approval.

The Milwaukee voucher program was set up by the state legislature and Milwaukee voters have never had a chance to vote on this controversial program. This is a chance for the Common Council to defend democracy and equality and say “no” to policies of discrimination.

The voucher schools’ ability to discriminate against gay people and women is part of larger problems. To name just a few:

  • Private voucher schools do not have to adhere to open meetings and records requirements. (Public schools do.)
  • Private voucher schools, unlike public schools, do not have to educate all children. Unlike public schools, they do not have to provide ELL or bilingual education. Unlike public schools, they do not have to provide all needed special education students. Unlike public schools, they can expel or suspend students at will, with no constitutional protections of due process and free speech.
  • Private voucher schools, unlike public schools, do not have to adhere to Wisconsin law that prohibits discrimination against students on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy, marital or parental status.

Over the years, private voucher schools have drained more than $1.3 billion in taxpayer dollars from public schools. Due to funding cuts, public schools have been forced to reduce art, music, physical education and libraries, and have drastically enlarged class size.

Voucher schools have been used to privatize, defund and dismantle the Milwaukee Public Schools — even though MPS is the only institution in the city with the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to educate all children.

All these controversies swirl around the proposed sale of Lee Elementary to St. Marcus.  

Voucher supporters are adept at framing the program in rhetoric of “choice.” But with the current controversy over the sale of Lee Elementary to St. Marcus, there is no escaping this fundamental question:

Should public policy and taxpayer dollars promote discrimination? If you believe so, then vote for the sale. But be clear: that is what your vote means.

But if you believe that public policy should defend democracy and safeguard equality, the choice is clear. Say “no” and don’t sell Lee Elementary to St. Marcus.