Playing By Different Rules

If The Supreme Court Upholds Vouchers, Taxpayers May Have To Fund Sectarian Schools That Practice Religious Discrimination, Teach Controversial Material And Shun Accountability

Sister M. Angela Shaughnessy knows religious schools play by different rules than those in the public school system.

In a 1996 address to parochial school officials in New Orleans, the Roman Catholic nun talked about the freedoms afforded to private schools.

"People assume that students and faculty in the private sector have the same rights as those in public sector," said Shaughnessy, who is an attorney as well as a member of a religious order. "They don't."

Shaughnessy continued, "For instance, freedom of speech, that First Amendment guarantee, doesn't apply in a Catholic school." She went on to explain that private school administrators are free to ignore due process rights, the freedom of the student press and Fourth Amendment protections against improper searches and seizures.

With school vouchers now on the agenda at the Supreme Court, it may be a good time to take a closer look at the schools that will be receiving tax dollars if the justices approve the voucher concept. Lawmakers in Congress, right-wing media commentators and voucher supporters hail religious schools as models that deserve public support. But critics note that some private schools practice religious discrimination, teach controversial curricula and avoid the kind of accountability we expect from publicly funded institutions.

Here are the facts.

How Religious Schools Operate

Religious schools are free of many employment regulations from the state. Because they are considered ministries and are funded by private donations, they can hire and fire staff based on religious criteria.

In Montgomery County, Md., for example, Montrose Christian School was taken to court by three former employees who argued that they were fired for not being Southern Baptists.

In the final days of the 1996 school year, Montrose Christian, which is sponsored by Montrose Baptist Church, welcomed a new pastor and principal, both of whom made personnel changes promptly. To those dismissed, the firings appeared to be religiously discriminatory.

Mary Lou Jones, a Catholic, was fired despite 18 years of service at the school as a secretary. Sharon Walsh, Jones' daughter and also a Catholic, was fired from her 14-year secretarial job the same day. Helen Poole, a Methodist, lost her job after six years of service as a cafeteria worker.

The women sued the school with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing that the dismissals were inconsistent with local civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination on religious grounds. School officials denied a religious bias, telling a jury they simply wanted to employ only staff who are members of the church.

In April 2001, the Maryland Supreme Court ruled in favor of the church. The court concluded that Montrose Christian, as a privately funded ministry, could hire and fire anyone they pleased.

Similarly, once religious schools decide who to hire, school officials have the discretion of imposing stringent religious rules on their staff.

In New Orleans, for example, many teachers in the city's Catholic schools were surprised to receive a memo over the summer warning them that their jobs were at stake if their personal choices, even far outside the classroom, were inconsistent with the church's Code of Canon Law.

In preparation for the 2001-2002 school year, the Archdiocese of New Orleans decided to reemphasize the significance the church places on schools' "lifestyle policy," which applies to all school employees, regardless of their faith tradition. As a result, staffers at Catholic schools were reminded that they are prohibited from living with a sex partner outside of marriage, having children out of wedlock, marrying outside of the church, divorcing or viewing pornography. Employees also cannot remarry without an annulment of a previous marriage, which according to archdiocese officials can take up to 30 months.

J. Rene Coman, superintendent of the archdiocese's schools, insisted that commitment to Catholic principles is paramount.

"Catholic schools are part of a ministry," Coman said. "Those people who are participating in the ministry have an obligation to model Catholic values."

It is this inextricable tie between a religious school and the controlling religious group or denomination that makes vouchers controversial for advocates of church-state separation.

"American taxpayers should never be forced by the state to support religion," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "When the government gives public funds to religious schools, it is ultimately no different than forcing taxpayers to put money in the collection plate."

Questionable Curricula

While religious schools are exempt from some government fair employment laws, the same hands-off approach applies to a private school's curriculum.

In Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush (R) successfully passed the nation's first statewide voucher plan, some educators have expressed concerns over the quality of educational materials used in private schools that are eligible for public funding.

Robert J. Safransky, a retired educator from Pinellas County, Fla., outlined some of those worries in a column in the Oklahoma Observer.

"Some textbooks used by the private and religious schools in Florida and elsewhere in this country advance an assortment of religious, constitutional and historical biases that few educators or politicians would accept or permit in our public schools," Safransky said.

Research suggests that educational materials used in private religious schools are in many instances politically and theologically biased, academically substandard and sometimes patently false.

Frances R. A. Paterson, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Valdosta State University, has done extensive research on private Christian schools' curricula by scrutinizing textbooks. Her results paint an unflattering picture.

Paterson's studies show that textbooks commonly used in Christian schools, including some that already receive voucher funds in Cleveland and Milwaukee, are "virtually identical to the materials produced and disseminated by the Christian Right and other economic, political, and socially conservative organizations."

"Aside from the factual information related to the content areas of these materials, the textbooks and booklets frequently resemble partisan, political literature more than they do the traditional textbooks used in public schools," Paterson wrote in a report published by Phi Delta Kappan in 2000.

Her research focused primarily on textbooks published by A Beka Books, Bob Jones University Press and Accelerated Christian Education. Paterson said that materials from the various companies had several similarities, including the merging of religious and secular education and a political bias in which "conservatives are cited and quoted with approval, while liberals are given less coverage, omitted, or treated in a critical fashion."

The most common similarity, however, was the constant inclusion of conservative Christian ideas, pervasive in every text. Paterson said these points of view are found in some surprising areas.

Paterson explained, "(R)eligion...appears in places where its inclusion is unexpected: the failure of the French and Spanish to successfully colonize North America was part of God's plan that the United States should be established as a 'Christian' i.e., Protestant nation; the violence of the French Revolution resulted from an absence of Christian values; the lack of economic progress in Africa and India is a result of pagan belief systems; German Biblical higher criticism and a belief in Darwinian evolution were direct causes of World War II; and so forth."

Paterson's research also shows that the texts appear to take every opportunity to espouse what would best be described as propaganda.

Nearly every societal conflict is framed as a culture war in which conservative Christians are morally or intellectually superior. In social studies, abortion is "legalized murder" and the "slaughter of unborn babies." Gay people are called "vile" and compared to child molesters. In science classes, students are taught that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and creationism is accurate science. In history class, teachers explain that Prohibition was a good idea that failed due to human frailty, while fourth graders are inaccurately told the "Supreme Court ruled that prayer and Bible reading were illegal."

Some of the harshest criticism in the textbooks is reserved for other religious faiths. One Bob Jones University Press text tells students that Catholics have "perverted the truth of Christianity."

In addition, according to some textbooks, Satan has influenced religions prominent in Africa. "The strong influence of magic and demonism on African religions made much of African life unhappy and savage," said the teacher's edition of one Bob Jones University Press book. "Satan's strong hold on these people kept them worshiping him rather than the true God."

Hindus, meanwhile, are also the subject of scorn. One A Beka textbook calls the faith "superstition," which keeps people "living lives of fear."

Though many would consider lessons such as these troubling, the curricula are unregulated because they are used at private schools. Voucher opponents are concerned about what will happen if vouchers are found to be legal and students are being taught this information with public funding.

Mismanagement, Fraud And Abuse

Critics of taxpayer-funded religious education also note systemic problems of accountability. Public schools are often disparaged for excessive levels of bureaucracy and "red tape," yet there are a number of instances in which private schools have received public aid through vouchers with embarrassing results.

In the mid 1990s, the first two voucher "experiments" were created in Cleveland and Milwaukee. Local officials were faced with the quandary of how to regulate the schools receiving public assistance. In the interest of preserving the independence of the schools and their connected ministries, legislators applied very little regulation to the tax dollars. When the results of this arrangement were analyzed, the results were less than satisfactory.

In Cleveland, financial mismanagement plagued the system from the outset. By 1998, just three years after the program had been initiated, the city's voucher experiment suffered from a $2.9 million overrun, which represented nearly half of the program's entire $7.1 million budget.

Further, while the program was advertised as a benefit to impoverished children in Cleveland's inner city, Ohio State Auditor Jim Petro audited the system and saw that dozens of families earning between $50,000 and $90,000 received tax dollars for private school tuition. The audit also discovered that the project was over billed $419,000 by taxicab companies that had been hired to transport students to the private schools, and then realized that some of the funds went for nonexistent rides for nonexistent students.

The Milwaukee program was no better, with its own share of problems and "invisible" students. For example, Adrian T. Hipp, founder and former executive director of a Milwaukee voucher school, was found guilty of falsifying attendance records to receive a $42,000 overpayment.

A state court ruled in 1997 that 90 students who Hipp said attended his Exito High School did not exist. In addition, Hipp supplied state officials with names of teachers and courses that were entirely fictional. As the school's financial difficulties escalated, he garnisheed bank accounts and paid school employees with money orders.

Unfortunately, Hipp wasn't the only case of voucher fraud in Milwaukee. Frederick Hampton, the founder of Milwaukee Prepatory, another school participating in the voucher program, was charged with defrauding the state of thousands of dollars by lying about the age of 10 students so they would remain eligible for reimbursement from the state. As a result, authorities issued an arrest warrant for Hampton, who went into hiding for a year. His school closed in February 1996, and his students were left without classrooms.

Wisconsin said the school received more than $317,000 in public funds for 275 students, 10 of which were ineligible because they were too young. One parent told authorities she attended a meeting at which Hampton advised parents of 3-year-olds to misrepresent their children's ages as 4 so the school could get the voucher aid.

Certainly public schools have had their share of controversies and examples of negligence, but because they are funded entirely by public support, there are no ambiguities about holding them accountable. Public institutions can be audited regularly and inspected by the state. Far less certainty exists about what to do when private schools fail while using tax dollars.


With cases like these in mind, there can be little doubt that religious schools are sometimes fraught with controversy. This is not to say that these institutions are consistently worse than their public counterparts, nor are they more prone to failure. These instances do, however, demonstrate that the promises from voucher proponents that private always beats public are deceptive.

"Religious school vouchers threaten more than religious liberty," concluded AU's Lynn. "They invite divisive conflict over everything from publicly funded employment discrimination to taxpayer support of biased curricula. As the legal debate unfolds in the coming months, I hope these practical policy concerns are not overlooked."