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Bias is back

"Bias is back" Continued...

Issue: "9/11 remembered," Aug. 17, 2002

The Associated Press labeled vouchers a "divisive idea," but Clarence Thomas's concurring opinion pointed out that the governmental educational system was already divisive: Alluding to Frederick Douglass's statement that education "means emancipation," Justice Thomas wrote, "Today many of our inner-city public schools deny emancipation to urban minority students. Despite this Court's observation nearly 50 years ago in Brown vs. Board of Education, that 'it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education,' urban children have been forced into a system that continually fails them."

Before even explaining what the Supreme Court majority had decided, the Associated Press had opponents calling vouchers a "fraud." The AP story did not quote Justice Thomas's examination of the real fraud: "While in theory providing education to everyone, the quality of public schools varies significantly across districts." Nor did it quote Mr. Thomas's explanation of how prime advocates of vouchers are trying to save lives, not "siphon" funds: "Just as blacks supported public education during Reconstruction, many blacks and other minorities now support school choice programs because they provide the greatest educational opportunities for their children in struggling communities.... While the romanticized ideal of universal public education resonates with the cognoscenti who oppose vouchers, poor urban families just want the best education for their children."

The opposition to vouchers was evident on the news pages, but the editorial pages explained more of the reasons for opposition. The New York Times editorialized about the awful situation of parents choosing "between a failing public school system and the city's parochial schools.... Not surprisingly, fully 96.6 percent of students end up taking their vouchers to religiously affiliated schools." The Kansas City Star praised dissenting Justice David Souter's comment that the decision by an overwhelming majority of Cleveland parents to put their children in Christian schools could not possibly reflect the genuine choice of parents. The Los Angeles Times argued that choice isn't necessarily bad, "but what if the choice were only between public and religious schools?" The editorial staffs of these newspapers and many more were clearly troubled at the prospect of more children attending Christian schools.

Missing anti-Catholicism

I'm not at all suggesting that journalists should be cheerleaders for Christians generally or evangelicals in particular. Some examination of American history would lead to greater appreciation of the evangelical role in American history (see WORLD, April 27) but also a far deeper criticism.

Bill Mittlefehldt of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote in June: "Religious hatred and intolerance inspired the al-Qaida terrorist attacks. Our nation's founders knew that a young nation, filled with immigrants of different nationalities, languages, and religions, could easily pull apart. This is why public schools were designed as non-sectarian institutions-to unite 'we the people.'"

That's not accurate. Public (that is, government-funded, non-church) schooling caught on in the 1840s and thereafter, after the nation's founders were gone. Many schools were not so much non-sectarian as anti-sectarian, and anti one faith in particular, Catholicism. Catholics, perceiving the public schools as devoted to teaching Protestantism, worked to set up their own institutions and asked that some of their tax money be used to defray expenses. Protestants, wanting their schools to have hegemony, enlisted the aid of a leading politician, James G. Blaine; he would run for president as the GOP nominee and narrowly lose in 1884.

Blaine introduced a constitutional amendment prohibiting aid to explicitly religious schools. It received 2/3 support in the House but fell just short in the Senate. Legislators found a different route to impose their will: They required territories seeking admission to the Union as states, and Southern states seeking readmission, to have "Blaine amendments" in their state constitutions; most states today have them.

Arizona's Supreme Court recently called that state's Blaine amendment "a clear manifestation of ... bigotry" and did not let it sideline a tax-credit law that furthers school choice. School-choice proponents need similar actions in other states. If journalists covered this story, they would find out who is willing to have a level playing field for all religions, and who indeed is pushing for supremacy for his particular worldview. And journalists would be able to attack accurately the evangelical arrogance of Christmases past.

Closing off debate

Sadly, few journalists have looked at the history of American education. Most have remained content to view debates along the reductionist lines suggested by Dahlia Lithwick of Slate: "The whole battle that begins with 'my God can beat up your God' ... shouldn't start now, simply because we mostly agree that God is a good idea."

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