TIME Education

Let Schools Teach Stupid Stuff (Like Creationism)

Tax dollars are used to teach all sorts of nonsense in public schools. So why is it news when vouchers are involved?

I’m certain that Adam and Eve didn’t have a pet triceratops, and I’ve yet to accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior.

And yet, I find it hard to get upset that, as a story in Politico reports, “Taxpayers in 14 states will bankroll nearly $1 billion this year in tuition for private schools, including hundreds of religious schools that teach Earth is less than 10,000 years old, Adam and Eve strolled the garden with dinosaurs, and much of modern biology, geology and cosmology is a web of lies.”

As it happens, I’m among the paltry 15% of Americans who, according to Gallup, believe that “Humans evolved, but God had no part in the process.” Fully 78% of Americans believe either that “God created humans in their present form” and “Humans evolved, with God guiding.” (In 1982, only 9% of Americans believed in god-free evolution.)

So I find myself at odds. As much as I believe in evolution, I believe even more strongly in school choice — especially for poor and underprivileged kids, who are the primary beneficiaries of the voucher programs discussed by Politico.

If that means some of them get my tax dollars to spend on lessons I find objectionable, well, what else is new? As the parent of a 12-year-old boy in a public middle school and another son who graduated from a public high school a few years back, this sort of frustration is just par for the course. Traditional public schools are never slow to teach things I find annoying (politicized environmentalism), useless (sports programs über alles), and flat-out wrong (colonial Virginians strutted about in body armor).

They also generally stink at teaching science, which explains the U.S.’s dismal rankings in global comparisons. According to the 2012 PISA assessments (the latest available), U.S. students ranked 23rd in science, sandwiched between Slovakia and Lithuania. You can’t blame that sad-sack showing on a handful of voucher kids at fundamentalist Bible schools.

We spent $638 billion on public K-12 expenditures in 2009–10, so $1 billion is practically a rounding error. Just 250,000 kids out of 55 million public school students benefit from vouchers (and it’s worth stressing that not all voucher kids go to religious schools, much less anti-evolution lycées). The number of pupils per teacher is at an all-time low and per-pupil spending has increased 37% since 1990, to $12,743, and we still can’t top Slovakia?

If we’re being honest, private and public schools at all levels teach all sorts of nonsense with tax dollars. (Pell grants and guaranteed student loans are widely used at religious colleges and universities after all.) Yet the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that such aid is constitutionally sound as long as the money goes to individual students and parents.

Whatever else you can say about school vouchers and other forms of school choice (like charter schools), they expand opportunities for parents whose children are otherwise trapped in schools that rarely perform well. There is much research documenting that vouchers improve student outcomes and little that says vouchers diminish student outcomes. Stephanie Simon, the author of Politico’s story about creationism and vouchers, quoted a Brookings scholar in a piece last year saying, “There’s no evidence that people are being harmed” via voucher programs. At the very least, it should count for something that parental rates of satisfaction are higher at schools of choice (including public charters and magnets) that at traditional public schools to which students are simply assigned.

We live in a pluralistic society, one in which many different types of people believe many different types of things. Ideally, none of us would be forced to subsidize lesson plans or schools with which we disagree — and nobody would be forced to pay for schools unless their kids were attending or they felt like making a gift. Certainly it would be better to separate school and the state, if only because, as Marx might put it, the function of compulsory education is to reinforce the status quo and maintain the existing social order rather than to create critical thinkers who might challenge it.

But until we agree to get the state out of the education business, we shouldn’t get worked up over “hundreds of religious schools” — compared with about 100,000 public schools in the country — using tax dollars to teach stupid stuff. Our outrage should be directed toward reforming an education establishment that has resolutely failed to raise math and reading test scores of high school seniors at all over the past 40 years.

That’s the real scandal. And unlike evolution, which will proceed apace whether or not we believe in it, math and reading will stop in their tracks if we don’t teach them to our children.

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