Parents Know Best: Government Vouchers and Adventist Education

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Parents Know Best: Government Vouchers and Adventist Education

Introduction

In 2001 when I arrived at the General Conference to begin representing the world church to the U.S. Government, I knew two things:

First, religious freedom is a tremendous blessing given by God, and it is the unique responsibility of Adventists to defend it publicly. In so doing, we don’t only preserve a fundamental human right, we are witnesses to the character of God.

The second thing? All good Adventist religious liberty advocates oppose government money flowing to church schools.

After all, Adventists helped found “Americans and Other Protestants United for the Separation of Church and State” – an organization that not only advocates against state funds for church schools, they go to court to oppose other Christian denomination’s schools from receiving funding. I’d heard talks, read articles, and I have been well schooled in all the constitutional, theological and rhetorical reasons why we should oppose state funding for Christian education.

Today I only know one of the two things I once did, proving, I suppose, that the older we get, the less we know! This is the story of how I got to know less than I once did, and what it means for a very big question now facing the Adventist Church in the United States.

 

Jones v. White

 

My journey started with a faith-filled man named Bob Nixon. I realize that in describing a lawyer as “faith-filled” I may have lost some readers already. However, in this case, I believe the description appropriate. You may recall that Bob was General Counsel for the GC for many years—he was our church’s top lawyer. One day he invited me into his office. In his kindly way, he opened up the topic of state funding for church schools.

 

I replied with the stock religious liberty analysis. We must support separation of church and state. Church schools are innately religious entities and thus should not receive government funds. If they did, they would be corrupted by the funds, and the state would be corrupted by the religious lobbying that would accompany such funds.

 

Bob smiled and said that I had perfectly summarized A.T. Jones’ view on the matter. I felt rather proud of myself. After all, A. T. Jones was the founder of our religious liberty movement, a champion of righteousness by faith and an all round remarkable fellow. Whose example better to follow?

 

But then Bob went on to say something along the lines of, “However, you should know that your position is directly at odds with Ellen White’s view.”

 

I was shocked. Surely Bob was joking. Or was he simply wrong? After all, it was Ellen White who said:

 

“The union of the church with the state, be the degree never so slight, while it may appear to bring the world nearer to the church, does in reality but bring the church nearer to the world.” Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p 297.

 

Isn’t state funding a sort of union?

 

And more, doesn’t she say on p. 573 of The Great Controversy, that efforts to secure state support for “the institutions… of the church,” is a step towards the coming repression of religious freedom? Isn’t state funding of our school systems exactly the kind of support for religious institutions she was talking about?

 

Before I left his office Bob gave me a thick compilation of Ellen White’s advice on church-state relations, pointed me to some pages to read and in his soft manner asked me to let him know what I thought after I’d studied the counsel in full.

 

Of course I’d read The Great Controversy cover to cover. And I knew plenty of Ellen White’s statements on church-state issues, but before that day, I’d never sat down and studied them all—comparing one quote to another, analyzing the context for apparently conflicting principles and delving into the meaning of her message in total.

 

What became quickly apparent as I devoured the thick document was what I’d thought of as Adventist views on church-state relations were very far from Ellen White’s views. And no place was this more apparent than in the area of government support for Christian education. Indeed, the volume contained documents about an early religious liberty controversy in our church that challenged everything I believed on the topic.

 

In the 1890‘s, the colonial authorities in the land that we now call Zimbabwe, offered the Adventist Church land to build a school. It was to be the first Adventist school located in a predominantly non-Christian society. Without the land, it seemed that it would be impossible for the school to be established. But it was a classic case of state support for a religious school. This, of course, was opposed by A. T. Jones. And he succeeded in swinging the church behind his view. The 1895 General Conference Session, at the behest of religious liberty leaders, voted to bar the church leaders in Southern Africa from accepting the land grant and, then for good measure, went even further, to ban churches in America from receiving tax-exempt status.

 

When Ellen White got news of the decisions of these 1895 General Conference Session votes, she expressed strong opposition to both. Writing in favor of receiving state aid, she stated:

 

“Just as long as we are in this world, and the Spirit of God is striving with the world, we are to receive as well as to impart favors. We are to give to the world the light of truth as presented in the sacred Scriptures, and we are to receive from the world that which God moves upon them to do in behalf of His cause. God has not closed the door of mercy yet. The Lord still moves upon the hearts of kings and rulers in behalf of His people, and it becomes us who are so deeply interested in the religious liberty question not to cut off any favors, or withdraw ourselves from the help that God has moved men to give for the advancement of His cause.

“Let these men [Religious Liberty leaders] read the book of Nehemiah with humble hearts touched by the Holy Spirit, and their false ideas will be modified, and correct principles will be seen, and the present order of things will be changed.” Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 200 & 202 (emphasis added).

 

Writing about the extreme positions taken by the religious liberty leaders on the issue of state funding, Ellen White went so far as to state:

 

“[I]deas of religious liberty are being woven with suggestions that do not come from the Holy Spirit, and the religious liberty cause is sickening…” Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 200 (emphasis added).

 

After reading this analysis, and statements like them, I reread her writings on the union of church and state and support of Christian institutions. In context, the “institution” Ellen White was talking about was not healthcare or educational institutions, but rather doctrinal institutions—and specifically, Sunday laws. Her statement was not related to funding for schools. Similarly, the “union” she was talking about was not fiscal support, but rather the use of the state to impose doctrinal positions. I had completely misapplied her statements because I had misunderstood her message.

 

When I read her counsel, and other counsel similar to it, reexamined statements I had thought supported my views and realized they did not, I was faced with a choice. Maintain my allegiance to the A. T. Jones’ view of religious liberty, or accept the Ellen G. White view. Both have compelling rationales. The A. T. Jones stream remains very much alive and well in Adventism. And many of our non-Adventist allies continue to espouse it as well. It neatly fits with what I’d been taught in law school. It was respectable. And it was the safer option.

 

But I didn’t want my work to be, as Ellen White put it, “sickening.” I didn’t want to adhere to views that are not, as she put it, sourced from the Holy Spirit. I didn’t want to be out of step with the light the Adventist Church was so uniquely entrusted with.

 

So I changed my views. Rather than opposing state funding for Adventist schools, I supported it as long as it didn’t compromise the character of our schools. I included this general support in the official Seventh-day Adventist Statement on Church-State Relations that I was asked by the GC Administration to draft, which was passed through the relevant committees and continues to be available on the General Conference’s website. The relevant portion of the statement reads in part:

 

“[W]hen laws of a nation permit government assistance to churches or their institutions our principles permit receipt of funding that is not accompanied by conditions that inhibit our ability to freely practice and promulgate our faith, to hire only Seventh-day Adventists, to retain governance by only Seventh-day Adventists and to observe without compromise principles expressed in the Bible and the writings of Ellen G White.” General Conference Official Statement on Church-State Relations.

 

An Intriguing Australian Experience

 

Because Ellen White became an irritant to General Conference leadership, she was sent to Australia for the bulk of the 1890’s.

 

I’ve recently returned from my own time in Australia where I worked in Sydney as the South Pacific Division’s religious liberty director, communications director and editor of the division’s magazine, the Adventist Record. I have to say, I highly recommend the place to anyone with the opportunity to go. I went for one year, and ended up staying for almost six—which tells you everything you need to know about Sydney.

 

What I found in Australia was a church community very different from the one I remembered from the 70s and 80s. Back then theological disputes roiled the church, young people were leaving in droves, morale was at an all time low, Adventists were distrusted by the general public, who if the libelous rumors about us that surfaced during the Chamberlain trial were true, and you had to wonder what kind of future—if any—the Adventist Church had in Australia.

 

But things have changed in ways I never could have imagined. The last national census for which data is available found that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the nation’s fastest growing Protestant denomination—growing at a rate substantially faster than the national population. And, unlike the stereotype, it is not greying. In fact, it has roughly twice as many young people as it has old people. Tithe is going up faster than GDP growth.

 

At the heart of this healthy turn around is the Adventist school system. Many of the schools have grown large and have exceptionally well resourced campuses. And, curiously, non-Adventists are lining up to send their kids to our schools.

 

Soon after arriving in Australia, I visited Avondale Adventist School, which is PreK-12, and has close to 1,000 students. I was astonished by the place. It has an enormous commercial kitchen with cavernous subzero freezers and everything else you could ever ask for in a culinary college, where students can earn professional certifications. Similarly, there are programs where students can earn professional certifications in construction, carpentry, automotive repair and a range of other disciplines. It has a large modern library that is called the i-Center because of the sophisticated technology available in it. All in all, the facilities are second to none. Don’t believe me? After you’ve finished this article, have a look at their facilities – take the i-Center’s virtual tour, check out the commercial kitchen in the Multi-purpose building, and just roam through all the other facilities they have – but be prepared to be a little jealous.

 

There is no Adventist school I’ve visited in the US that comes close to it. But it is hardly alone. Many Adventist schools in Australia today have facilities that are absolutely first rate. And they are bursting at the seams and many have waiting lists. That certainly isn’t the way it used to be.

 

Not only do the schools have fabulous facilities, they are producing fabulous results. For example, while we were living in Australia, two Adventist schools scored in the top 100 schools in the nation on nationwide standardized tests. There are roughly 6,000 elementary schools in Australia. To have two of the top 100 be Adventist schools? That’s outstanding!

 

But there’s something more important than that: our schools are now our most important outreach to the community. Many of our schools have a majority non-Adventist student population. And increasingly, those students and their families, are finding Jesus through Adventist education.

 

One of the largest and most vibrant conferences in Australia is the North New South Wales Conference. It’s where Avondale College is located, where our large health food company is headquartered, and it’s where we have some of our largest schools. It’s a conference that has been particularly active with evangelistic campaigns, Bible workers going door-to-door, using TV ministries to reach people in their homes. All of that and more. And yet, the conference reports that in 2015, 72% of their baptisms were related to their schools. Not public evangelism. Not door-to-door work. Not TV ministry. Adventist schools. Other conferences’ results aren’t quite as impressive, but all substantially benefit from the impact of the Adventist schools in their territory.

 

It’s fair to say that Adventist education saved the Adventist Church in Australia and it is rejuvenating it in an amazing way.

 

But here’s the rub: it wouldn’t have happened were it not for government funding. Many campuses have beautiful buildings that were paid for by the government as part of a stimulus program during the great recession. And education funding in Australia follows students. If a student goes to a state school, the school receives funding. If they go to a secular private school, that school gets funding. If a Catholic school, the Catholic school gets funding, and if an Adventist school, well then the Adventist school receives the funding. The funding formula is complex—the poorer the student’s family, the higher the funding for the student, for example. And the state funding doesn’t cover the full cost of Adventist education, but it does make it broadly affordable. As a result, a much larger percentage of the population can afford Adventist education, and with that affordability comes access.

 

I wish every American Adventist could visit the Australian Adventist school system and see the difference it makes to have the tax money we pay the state for education, be available to the schools that we choose to send our children to. It is also inspiring to see how many people in the community, when the financial barrier is lowered, choose the type of education Adventists provide. Many Adventist schools have waiting lists of non-Adventists hoping to get their children into the school. It’s not that public education in Australia isn’t good. It is that Adventist education is better. And the more people from the general community realize that, the more demand there is for our schools.

 

In the Adventist school that my children attended in Sydney, it was common to have the non-Adventist parents comment on just how highly they valued not just the quality of the education, but the values and the spirit of the school. As one non-Adventist parent put it to me one day: “The difference at this school is that for the teachers, teaching isn’t a job, it’s a calling.” I could not have said it better myself.

 

By permitting parents to choose where education funding goes, not only are Australian Adventist schools and Adventist families benefiting, the entire community is, as thousands of families who never could have afforded Adventist education are now accessing it.

 

But Is Permitting Parents to Choose where Education Funding Goes Good for Society?

 

Just because permitting parents to choose where school funding flows can greatly benefit Adventist education, does not mean we should support it. Why? Because, as Christians, we should only support policies that are beneficial to others, not just ourselves. Is permitting families to choose the school they want to send their children to, a good thing? To answer that, I begin with President Obama.

 

There are many things to admire about President Obama, but one in particular stands out: he’s a good dad. So it’s no surprise that when the President left the Oval Office, the Obamas stayed in Washington. Their youngest daughter still has years to go before she finishes high school and they don’t want to interrupt her education.

 

After all, the Obama’s carefully chose the very best school for their daughters’ education. Last month, Education Week came out with its ranking of America’s public school systems and gave the District of Columbia’s public schools a C-. Who, given a choice, would want their precious daughter to attend a C- public school, when there is an A+ private, faith-based, school option just up the street? Not the Obamas. Or the Clintons, for that matter. They both chose the Quaker Sidwell Friends School for their children.

 

The Obamas and the Clintons chose well. But they also chose pricey. Even the fortunate families receiving Sidwell’s financial aid, are still left with 1/3rd of the fees to pay—that’s $13,120 per student per year. The Obama’s school is an impossible dream for the vast bulk of families in the District of Columbia. And that’s a problem.

 

We want disadvantaged kids to transcend their socio-economic circumstances. We know that education is the path for doing so. But we lock them into a C- system and we’re surprised that the cycle of disadvantage isn’t broken. How can they transcend their circumstances if they aren’t even allowed in the same classrooms as America’s elite? How can they win the race, when they aren’t even on the same race track?

 

There’s an alternative to our educational inequality at work in Australia. Like the US, Australia has a very multicultural society. In fact, 28.2% of people living in Australia today were born overseas—that’s over twice the US percentage of first generation immigrants. Like the US, Australia is a secular state that has an almost identical Establishment Clause that prohibits the state from endorsing a particular faith. Like Americans, Australians are deeply concerned about the academic performance of their children. But there are two very important differences.

 

First, Australian students perform significantly better than American students on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Australian students are ranked 8 nations ahead of the US on reading, 11 nations ahead on science and 15 nations ahead on math.

 

And there’s a second difference. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 10% of American children enjoy the privilege of a private education and that percentage is declining. In contrast, almost 40% of Australian high school students go to private high school and that percentage is increasing.

 

Why the difference? In large part its because state funding for education in Australia follows students, rather than schools. That doesn’t mean all private schools in Australia are affordable, but many are. For example, it only costs $1,216 a year to send two children to the Catholic Holy Trinity Primary School in Canberra, the capital of Australia. In comparison, it costs $26,600 to send two students to the Catholic Holy Trinity School in Washington, DC. Two Holy Trinities; two very different economic realities.

 

And Australia isn’t alone. Canada also substantially out performs the US on the PISA. Like Australia, the majority of Canadian provinces provide financial support to students attending faith-based schools.

 

This support makes both academic sense and moral sense. We don’t ban Medicare patients from going to private hospitals. Federal student loan programs don’t discriminate against students attending faith-based universities. USAID partners with religious aid organizations to deliver essential aid around the world. So why the uniquely counter-productive discrimination against families who send their children to faith-based schools?

 

Not only is academic performance a concern, but the mental health of our young is in very serious decline. According to the US Center for Disease Control, between 1950 and 2010 the American suicide rate for children aged 15 – 19 went up 278% and the rate for children aged 5 – 14 went up a staggering 350%. Clearly our experiment of excluding faith from our children’s education, using state funds to teach sexual values that result in harm and the state sponsored inculcation of students with the innately nihilistic theory of evolution has not worked well for our young. Our public schools are failing academically. They are failing socially, psychologically and spiritually. How is it moral to trap poor families in the system, while our national leaders use their wealth to opt out?

 

Further, it is in the general interest of society for children to have the option to be raised in a faith tradition. At the very least, parents shouldn’t be discriminated against for choosing a faith option. John Adams, whose contribution to the founding of the United States is grossly underestimated as laid out in David McCullough’s brilliant biography that I highly recommend, stated:

 

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

 

How will we keep our democracy, even as we are, as REM put it, losing our religion?
It is not just in the interest of democracy to have broad adherence to faith, it is overwhelmingly in the interest of its citizens generally. The 2016 New York Times bestseller “Hillbilly Elegy” by J. D. Vance examines the lack of intergenerational economic and social progress among working class white Americans. J. D. Vance, the young, Yale educated lawyer grew up in a severely dysfunctional, poor white family in an area where such families are the norm. After noting the church attendance is very low among poor whites, J. D. Vance, explains why this matters so much, summarizing the social sciences data as follows:

 

[S]ocial scientists have observed for decades [that] Religious folks are much happier. Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all. MIT economist Jonathan Gruber even found that the relationship was causal: It’s not that people who happen to live successful lives go to church, it’s that church seems to promote good habits.

 

In the face of the data, why would we deliberately discriminate against the schools that promote beliefs that objectively benefit individuals and society in general?

 

In Australia, school choice is working. In Canada it’s working. In America it’s working too. However, in the US it is only working for a small fraction of our national elite. America’s dirty little education secret is that the most successful, seldom send their children to public schools. The Trumps, the Gores, the Gates (Bill & Melinda, that is), the Clintons, the Obamas, The Bushes, and many more of the most successful men and women in America sent their children to private schools. It’s time we ensure every American parent has the opportunity to follow their educational example, and choose the very best school for their very precious children. It’s time to fix the destructive educational inequality that divides America. And we can do so, economically and, as we will see in the next section, constitutionally. So why not do it now?

 

But What About the Arguments Against Giving Families Choice?

 

There is, of course, a lot of opposition to school choice from the teacher’s unions and their allies in academia, the media and politics. And there remains opposition from the A. T. Jones wing of the Adventist Church. Let’s review the most prominent arguments.

 

Are Educational Vouchers Constitutional? In 2002, the US Supreme Court held in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that educational vouchers, even when used to attend church schools, are constitutional. The principle in the case is that parents, not the state, chose where the money was spent. Hence, the state was not “establishing” a religion, but rather was treating all faiths and secular options in a neutral manner. When you think about it, that has to be the right decision—providing parents an educational choice does not set up a particular faith, it just ensures freedom to follow a path that was previously denied to you by economic circumstances.

 

The American concept of religious freedom is, at its heart, all about following our personal choices in light of our faith commitment, or lack thereof. A well-crafted voucher program that treats religious and non-religious schools equally, enhances that freedom and is perfectly consistent with it.

 

Will choice compromise the integrity of religious schools? It could. It just depends. The reason that Adventist schools can accept state funding in Australia is that Australian law clearly defines the rights of faith-based schools to maintain their unique philosophy, hiring and policies.

 

That may change. If it does, the schools will lose the funding. Would that be painful? Terribly so. But should we reject the opportunity to educate children today because of the chance of experiencing hypothetical financial pain in the future? Ultimately, we know from Bible prophecy that all of our freedoms will be taken away. If we focus on that, we’d do nothing at all now. And miss the immense opportunity to do good we have in the present.
In addition, the higher percentage of students enrolled in faith-based schools, the harder it is to enforce coercive regulations. When, as in Australia, in the range of 40% of voters have, or have had, a child or grandchild in a private school, attacking those schools becomes politically risky. When only 10% have children in private schools, and that percentage is declining, private schools are vulnerable to politicians.

 

Further, Christian schools don’t need to receive a cent of voucher money to be subject to coercive government regulation. Indeed, there are already calls to strip church schools of their tax-exempt status. Even if that happened, schools receive other state benefits, from fire service to sewerage services. In a modern society, the state is so pervasively a part of our lives that there is no way to escape a connection. And even if there was, there’s nothing stopping states from attempting to regulate church schools even if they are not tied to state services or funding in anyway. Whether such restrictions would succeed if challenged in court, can be very difficult to know in advance—particularly after the redefinition of marriage by the Supreme Court and associated state efforts to impose on private entities various anti-discrimination regiments that impact on the Christian view of sexual ethics. The point is, church schools are vulnerable to regulation that impacts on their religious freedom, and vouchers do not change that.

 

It could be that vouchers in a particular state are accompanied by poison pill conditions that preclude us receiving them. In that case, we should refuse them and work for a change in the policy. But where the funding comes without undue state interference, there may be an opportunity to provide assistance to the poor, needy, and those looking for the kind of education only Adventists provide, on a scale we never dreamed of in the US. As Ellen White put it, we shouldn’t “cut off any favors, or withdraw ourselves from the help that God has moved men to give…”

 

Would Parent Choice Rob Public Schools of Needed Funds? Some argue that allowing parents to choose where education funds are spent will rob public schools of funding. It’s an odd argument when you think about it. Isn’t education funding directly related to student education? If students choose to attend private schools, why do public schools still need the funds to educate them?

 

On a practical level, where vouchers have been implemented, the private schools only get a small fraction of the amount spent per student at public schools. As such, vouchers actually increase the amount of public money per student available to public schools as the students who leave take with them only a fraction of the funding allocated to them, leaving the balance to be used to educate the public school students who remain. Hence funding per public school student actually increases.

 

And this argument ignores the flip side: parents who choose a private education are robbed by the current system. They pay the same taxes as their neighbors. And yet, when its time to educate their children, the education funding they pay into, is refused to them.

 

Some argue that everyone contributes to public education, even those with no children, hence the discrimination against parents who send their children to church school is justified. But this forgets that among those with no children are people who, for practical, philosophical or religious reasons, support the option for parents to send their kids to private schools without being economically discriminated against. These citizens’ preferences are just as valid as those who prefer a state-run educational monopoly.

 

Of course, if the move from public to private school happened dramatically, there may be some dislocation of resources. But that isn’t likely to happen. Rather, private schools are likely to slowly increase capacity, and public schools may reduce capacity or, in communities where student populations are growing, both may grow simultaneously.

 

Further, if public schools can demonstrate to parents and students that they are the better option, they won’t lose any students.

 

Finally, as much as we care about educational administrators, teachers unions, politicians and the rest, shouldn’t our focus be on students? Even if we disagree with a family’s choice to send their child to private school, should we continue to impose an artificial economic barrier to stop them from doing it?

 

Will School Choice Harm Children with Disabilities? The first thing to understand when the education of students with disabilities is raised is that, under our current system, we are doing abysmally. See, for example, this piece on the pervasive failure of states to meet basic goals.

 

 

If any student population deserve options, it is our children with disabilities.

 

And there’s no reason that choice will negatively impact access to the services necessary to educate students with the full range of special needs. Indeed, it will open up options to families with children with special needs to go to private schools if they so choose. For example, one of my friends sends her child with special needs to an outstanding Catholic school that is located near to where we lived in Sydney. We often passed by the school on our evening walks and commented on just what a lovely place it is. If you question whether vouchers will destroy special needs education, I encourage you to visit the school’s website, read the principal’s message, look at the photos, review the facilities. After you’ve looked over the school, ask yourself, if you had a child with special needs, would you like the option to send your child to a school like this, even if you aren’t wealthy? Or should only rich kids get to access high quality private schools for their disabled children?

 

Do Kids Who Use Vouchers Do Worse Than If They’d Stayed in Public School? As with every contentious issue in society, we have dueling studies on the academic impact of vouchers. Some report student improvement, others point to failure. A recent study suspiciously timed for release that is being touted by the teachers’ unions and their allies, was reported in the New York Times in February. The study claims to show that students who use vouchers do worse after they transfer to new private schools than if they had stayed at public schools. About two-thirds the way down the article, however, the author admits that this study may be an outlier, and other studies have not found similar results. And that programs that have been running longer tend to do better, indicating that the results may be due to teething problems.

 

Importantly, in many instances where vouchers currently exist in the US, they are very different from the school choice funding models in Australia. For example, they provide only a small fraction of the funding per student that is spent in public schools. This makes vouchers particularly fiscally attractive to schools with excess capacity. Private schools with excess capacity tend not to be the best private schools. Hence, the programs set up a self-selecting process guaranteed to eliminate many of the better private schools.

 

Further Jason Bedrik published an interesting piece analyzing how data is skewed in studies to favor public schools over private. Factors like graduation rates, college attendance rates, eventual incomes, which all significantly favor private schools, are ignored. Now, if you had to rank the performance of a school, would you really weight standardized testing results with all their limitations, above how kids actually fare in life? I certainly wouldn’t.

 

Further, sometimes the data is based specifically on public school curriculums, hence favoring public schools. For example, the reports that public school students outperform private school students in math is, Bedrik reports, likely largely due to the fact that the school systems emphasize very different math skills in their curriculums. But the standardized test focus on the public school curriculum model—hence skewing the results in favor of public school students. Put another way, performance on a particular standardized test may not reflect the relative math skills of the two student populations. Further, private students substantially out perform public students in English. Private schools have also been found to use funding more efficiently than public schools. For example, private schools that receive vouchers in Minneapolis produce similar results to public schools, but at half the cost per student. Bedrik’s full article is worth reading (but, of course, only after you’ve finished reading this article).

 

System-wide comparisons, however, substantially miss the point. Some public schools undoubtedly are academically outstanding. Some are not. Some private schools are academically brilliant. Some aren’t. But there are other factors that go into education besides raw academic performance. Some schools have terrific sports programs, some visual arts, others dance or theatre, languages or music. Some schools have great hands-on training in trades, technology or engineering. Some schools have a beautiful ethic of caring. Others toughen you up or knock you down. Some inspire faith in the divine. Others focus exclusively on the material.

 

Just as schools are diverse, so are children. Some thrive in enormous schools with almost unending options. Others like a small family feel to their school. Some excel at art, others at engineering, and so it goes. Matching children to the best school for them is not a simple business and it is one best entrusted to the people who understand and care for the individual students the most: their parents.

 

The idea behind school choice isn’t that all parents will choose private schools. In Australia, most parents continue to choose public education. The idea is that, every family like the Obamas, the Clintons, the Trumps, the Gores, and many other wealthy families in America, will have the option. Senator Elizabeth Warren eloquently explains this vision in her 2003 book:

 

A taxpayer-funded voucher that paid the entire cost of educating a child (not just a partial subsidy) would open a range of opportunities to all children. . . . Fully funded vouchers would relieve parents from the terrible choice of leaving their kids in lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools.

…the public-versus-private competition misses the central point. The problem is not vouchers; the problem is parental choice. Under current voucher schemes, children who do not use the vouchers are still assigned to public schools based on their zip codes. This means that in the overwhelming majority of cases, a bureaucrat picks the child’s school, not a parent. The only way for parents to exercise any choice is to buy a different home—which is exactly how the bidding wars started.

…Under a public school voucher program, parents, not bureaucrats, would have the power to pick schools for their children—and to choose which schools would get their children’s vouchers.

 

Conclusion

I preached in Brooklyn, New York, recently. Before the sermon an elderly woman got up and made the call for the offering to support Christian education. She told of her heartfelt regret that she had not been able to afford to send her boy to Christian education. And now, she said, he is lost to the world. My heart broke for her. And not just her. My heart breaks for all the Adventist families of modest means who can’t afford to access an Adventist school for their kids. And not just Adventists. My heart breaks for Catholic families who can’t afford the fees. For Episcopalians. Jews. For non-believers who simply want a way out of a failing public school.

 

Last night we had family fun night at our Adventist school. I was standing watching the kids play in-door soccer when a dad and I started talking. It turned out his daughter was playing with mine, laughing as they kicked the ball all over the place. His daughter, he told me, had started out in public school. But then other kids started bullying her. He did all he could to get someone to help, but no one cared. Then he reached back into his childhood and remembered the Adventist school he went to, convinced his non-Adventist wife, and they switched to the Adventist school. “What a difference!” he said as he watched the children play.

 

What a difference.

 

Isn’t it a difference that poor kids should have access to? I believe so. Families have a moral right to choose the best education they can for their children. For some families, that education will be an Adventist school. For others a Jewish school, a Catholic school or a secular school. For yet others it will be a public school. The genius of America is giving people freedom, and trusting them to make the best decisions for themselves with that freedom. For the state to take our money for education, and then deny us the right to use it to educate our children in the best manner we can determine is a self-defeating, discriminatory disgrace. There are few areas as important as the education of our children, and thus few freedoms more crucial than the freedom to choose the school we send our children to, without being subject to discriminatory economic barriers for doing so. We need to stop lecturing poor families about why their kids are not progressing up the economic ladder, and start giving every American kid the option to choose a first-rate education of their choice.

 

And remember the land grant that created the disagreement between Ellen White and A. T. Jones? That is the land on which Solusi University is built. Today, Solusi University educates approximately 2,000 students on its 12,000 acre campus. Every graduate can be thankful that Ellen White embraced opportunity rather than giving into fears.

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About the author

James Standish

James D. Standish earned his Juris Doctor, cum laude, from Georgetown University, his MBA from the University of Virginia, which is ranked among the top three MBA programs in the world by The Economist, and his BBA from Newbold College, England, where he was the student association president. He runs a private consultancy on the outskirts of Washington. He is married to Dr. Lesia Morton-Standish who earned her PhD in Education from the University of Maryland, and together they have two daughters who attend Adventist schools. James was also the communications director for the South Pacific Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as well as head of news and editorial for RECORD, the official news magazine of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. To keep up with his writing, friend him on Facebook or send him an email.

  • Anthony Bosman

    Appreciate the in-depth analysis! Perhaps it is worth noting that there is some evidence that the competition introduced by school vouchers can in fact *improve* public schools most affected by them: http://educationnext.org/rising-tide/

  • Craig Swift

    There is NO indication that school vouchers improve education period…NONE. I am and will remain firmly against state fund going to private or character schools. If public funds are going to be used to fund vouchers for private church school regardless of what religion then churches should be made to pay taxes just like any other institution. There is no reason in the world churches should be allowed to reap the benefits of public funds/taxes to promote their religious education and not have to share in the cost

    • Wanda Schutt Andrako

      You can be firmly against allowing some funding to flow with the children if you want but you are very wrong to deny a child a decent education. It doesn’t matter which religion the school is if they teach a full range of subjects and not just religion as we have seen Muslim children in foreign countries just memorizing the Koran. The school should have to meet certain standards like have the full range of subjects and teach all of them. Apparently you had an education and probably far enough back that you got a decent education. That is not the case now. Many in so-called good schools get mainly propaganda and teaching things that a child shouldn’t have to know. If you stick with that stance, you will be denying not only SDA children of christian education but non-SDA students that then teach their parents. I have known stiff necked people with firm opinions like yours that didn’t couldn’t think past their firmly set opinions. If you had read this article you would have had to see how the SDA schools in Australia help the general public and bring families to Jesus.

      • Craig Swift

        And I have seem people who think putting government money of Religious schools is a good thing only to find the government has control over the schools. You don’t know a thing about me…My oldest daughter graduated from a SDA school ,Burton Adventist Academy in Arlington, TX and my youngest child currently attends North Dallas Adventist Academy…My oldest daughter also attended Oakwood University…an SDA University in Huntsville,AL. It amazes me how people who claim to be Christians as so quick in social media to judge people and to claim they know what they think when they really know nothing..LOL

  • Leonard Willett

    Most of the discussion involving private schools referred to schools that promote a Judeo-Christian or secular ethic. Would the thinking change if Islamic private schools that might teach the negative aspects of Islam were added to the discussion?

    • Wanda Schutt Andrako

      I would think that they would have to cover the full range of subjects to be permitted to receive the funds.

  • CervvantesEsq

    I see absolutely no reason why my tax dollars should be used for vouchers to any parochial or private school. I see little logic in Standish’s reasoning on the subject.

    Is Standish OK, I wonder, with the fact that under Chuck Scriven’s presidency of now Washington Adventist University there was a lawsuit for the Sellinger grant from MD and Scriven won?
    See: http://www.sdadefend.com/MINDEX-C/CUC1142.pdf

    • Angela Hochreiter

      In most of the U.S. we already pay local taxes to keep the public schools open. I pay over $4,000 a year. Federal tax monies are also given to the schools based on how many children are enrolled. I have 2 children, I in school and the other I homeschool. If the money were to follow the child then I could afford to buy more books and science projects for the child I homeschool.

  • Lyndon Gerald Furst

    For a different perspective, see my recently published book Helping Parents Understand Schools. It includes three chapters on various aspects of school reform. While the book does focus on public schools, it provides a context for discussing the issues confronting Adventist educators in the near future. The book is listed on Amazon.

  • Stan Orr

    I attended a Catholic HS back in 1970 eight years before I became an Adventist. One of the issues discussed by the Catholic priest and brothers was tuition vouchers. The Roman Church was pushing hard behind the scenes to make tuition vouchers a reality so Catholic schools could be more affordable. They were angry over what they term separation of church and state doctrine within the U.S. Government. However, they guaranteed that tuition vouchers were coming. I just wanted all Adventist to know that this ideal was pushed and championed by the Roman Catholic Church and it amounts to Federal grants and aide to the Catholic School systems. Dr. Standish has a remarkable resume and academic, however, Georgetown is the top Jesuit University in the United States. I’m sure the Jesuits took great care to indoctrinate any Seventh-Day Adventist attending that University. I had a good friend that received her PHd from Georgetown. The Jesuit influence changed her.

  • Michael

    I can truly appreciate the angst of wondering how we will be able to continue to pay for Christian education, and whether the answer is actually government funding.

    At the same time, I cannot help but be very concerned about the encroaching attempts to secularize religious institutions, and that funding is a key avenue for this to occur. Mr. Standish wrote an article that this site published last October that I believe makes this point quite well. https://thecompassmagazine.com/blog/rethink

    “This is only the beginning. Expect accreditation of institutions, funding for church-related institutions and programs of all descriptions, any employment or contracting with the state, and eventually the practice within prominent professions, all to be targeted by the secular orthodox.”

    “In truth, the church as a whole is not well prepared for this onslaught. Some are still wondering what we must have done wrong to make the secular orthodox target us with such vengeance. In good Christian mode, we’re tripping over ourselves to apologize.”

    It is true that we have a history of benefiting from government grants in various places around the world. But given the gestalt of this age, is it really safe to do so now?

    If we are to take my friend Mr. Standish’s warning seriously, and if we are really facing such an onslaught, we should be looking to avoid entanglements and to maintain institutional independence as much as possible. Part of that entails governing and paying for our own institutions. Right now the government does not desire to pay for our schools in most states, and in fact are prohibited by local state constitutions, but if current litigation changes this and states are forced to pay, they will happily regulate – religion classes will be optional, “secular” employees can be of any religion, etc. There will not be much room for a religious institution, not even elementary schools, to continue to “discriminate” when it comes to “secular functions.”

    It may be that such an onslaught is inevitable, but to give away the argument of financial independence will be a white flag of surrender. At least when you’re paying your own way you can argue a sense of independence when courts decide whether or not you can self-regulate. It doesn’t take of an incentive to see everything change – Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. What more could happen when vouchers become the major funding source of our schools? Do we even want to think about it?

    With secular funding comes secular regulation.

    Michael Peabody, Esq.
    ReligiousLiberty.TV

    • JulianVasquezHeilig

      Excellent points

  • JulianVasquezHeilig

    As an SDA Christian that attended Adventist schools and supports them, this right-wing, conservative Republican ideology in a column about school vouchers and SDA schools is quite disappointing. Further it’s disappointing that the GC would trust him to write policy on this issue. What a disappointment to see this political propaganda here. For more on school vouchers visit https://cloakinginequity.com/category/vouchers/

    Public tax dollars absolutely should NOT go to private and religious schools for all the reasons I discuss on my blog.