Politico’s Voucher Story Is Bogus

This morning, Politico published an attention-grabbing story about how some private schools that teach creationism receive public funding through tuition tax credits and school vouchers.

The top line takeaway of the story: Nearly 1 billion taxpayer dollars go to school-choice programs that send students to private schools, which could be teaching creationism. That sounds like a pretty big deal. But the article fails to ask the first question any analyst of public policy must ask: “Compared with what?” That is, how big of an issue is this in the wider scheme of the American education system?

The U.S. public-school system spends about 600 billion dollars per year. If every student participating in a school-choice program attended a school that taught creationism, the dollars spent on them would represent less than 0.17 percent of all spending on K–12 schooling. When we think about students affected, about 300,000 students (out of 54 million) use vouchers or tax credits to finance their education — less than 0.56 percent. The article cites “hundreds of schools” teaching creationism (without ever clarifying exactly how many), but there are about 100,000 schools in America, so as long as it is in the hundreds, it is less than 1 percent of all schools.

But let’s assume that you don’t like the idea of teaching creationism in schools with taxpayer dollars, full stop. Stephanie Simon (the author of the piece) offers one solution — explicitly banning it from the public-school curriculum.

She writes, “Decades of litigation have established that public schools cannot teach creationism or intelligent design.” She contrasts this with private schools receiving public support by saying that they “can — and do.” The implied belief here is that because courts ruled that public schools cannot teach creationism or intelligent design, they don’t. The only problem with this belief is that it is false (a little ironic in an article about false beliefs).

In a 2011 issue of Science magazine (summarized without a paywall here), Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer surveyed a nationally representative sample of public high-school biology teachers and found that only 28 percent of them consistently implement National Research Council standards for the teaching of evolution. Thirteen percent of biology teachers explicitly teach creationism or intelligent design. Sixty percent hedge by neither strongly advocating for evolution or creationism. This makes a great deal of intuitive sense. The Politico article itself cites Gallup polling that consistently finds about 45 percent of the population of the United States believing in creationism. Given the fact for the last 40 years or so, no more than 12 percent of students have attended private schools at any point, and today a fraction of 1 percent of students use a voucher or tax credit to attend private schools, it’s hard to think they’re responsible for America’s creationist tendencies.

The Politico article cites anti-creationism crusader Zach Kopplin’s research on the teaching of creationism in schools funded by vouchers – without citing his investigation into public charter schools doing the same. In that work, he found more than 65 schools in Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana teaching creationism. These schools are subject the accountability systems the article decries as being absent from voucher programs and yet are still able to teach creationism.

It turns out that, in a big, diverse, pluralistic, and free nation like the one we live in, some folks are going to believe stuff that we don’t like and will want to teach that to their children.

In that sense, the Politico article makes what I think is a great argument for vouchers.

Imagine yourself moving to a state where a majority of citizens believe in creationism. If you agree with the wealth of human knowledge that our world developed through the process of evolution, you might find yourself in a bit of a pickle.  Because local school boards and state boards of education are elected or appointed by elected officials, it’s most likely that they will represent the viewpoints of creationists, which will then be reflected in school curriculum.

You actually don’t have to imagine this. Just watch the documentary The Revisionaries, which chronicles the Texas State Board of Education’s efforts to include creationism in public schools. In 2008, Louisiana passed the Science Education Act, which allowed public-school teachers to supplement science instruction with texts critical of evolution. In 2012, Tennessee passed a similar law. From 2005 to 2007, Kansas science standards promoted Intelligent Design and “Teaching the Controversy” about evolution and creationism.

If you’re a poor person in Louisiana or Tennessee, or at times Texas or Kansas, a voucher might be your only way out of a school that teaches creationism. If creationists are set on taking over school boards or state legislatures, school-choice programs might also work as a release valve for creationists to inflict their teachings on only their own children, and not yours.

None of this, unfortunately, is reflected in Politico’s piece, which seemed much more intent on taking a dig at people who think “Adam and Eve strolled the garden with dinosaurs” than understanding how science is taught in America, and what can be done to make it better.

—Michael Q. McShane

This post originally appeared in the National Review Online.

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