Columnists > Voices

Harvey wallbanger

The existence of Harvey Milk, a special school for gays, may put a dent in the "wall of separation" argument against school vouchers

Issue: "As the West burns," Sept. 6, 2003

THE HARVEY MILK SCHOOL OF NEW YORK CITY, even though it's part of the public-school system there, may end up doing more to promote non-public schools than its founders and promoters could ever have imagined.

The school, in case you've missed the current media storm, is a specially funded school "designed to meet the needs of homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth." The city of New York, even in the middle of a terrible budget crunch, has designated $3.2 million in tax money for the school. With an enrollment of 170, the Harvey Milk School is receiving nearly $19,000 for each of its unusually chosen students.

You will hardly be surprised to hear that this has riled the sensibilities of taxpayers both in New York and across the country. If students with these special needs and preferences can be given their own school at public expense, why not students with other special needs and preferences?

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I happen to have a couple of grandchildren who go to school in New York City. Jude and Phoebe are enrolled at Evangel Christian School, a nondenominational but church-related school near the eastern end of the Queensboro Bridge. Tuition at Evangel is extraordinarily low for a private school, because Evangel is deeply committed to its urban clientele-but Jude and Phoebe's mom and dad still have to come up with about $5,200 this year to pay their share of the school's annual budget.

Evangel Christian School enrolls 525 students from 450 families. I have a hunch most of those 450 families would be thrilled to have the city of New York designate $5,200 apiece to send their children to Evangel-not to mention $19,000 per student, or $38,000 for two students like Jude and Phoebe.

After all, if all it takes to get your own school is to spell out your unique needs and preferences, there are plenty of people who could get in line to make their case. Indeed, within a few miles of my own home in Asheville, N.C., there are now two public charter schools also established on such a basis. One of those two schools advertises itself as being especially devoted to environmental concerns. The other is founded with unique commitments to the arts. Both of those schools bill themselves as "tuition-free," and both collect something over $5,000 annually from the state for every student they enroll.

There is, of course, one set of "needs and preferences" that is still excluded-both in New York, in North Carolina, and almost everywhere else in the United States. Neither Jude and Phoebe's parents, nor any other Christian parents, are able to walk into the same public square where homosexual or environmental or artistic parents may go, and say, "Our children have some special needs and preferences with reference to their education, and we'd like the state to keep us in mind."

Never mind, for example, that a number of these children have been teased and taunted by classmates for being Christians or challenged by teachers for holding to overly narrow views. Such teasing and taunting and exclusion may be enough to qualify a homosexually inclined child for a special school. Maybe next in line will be children who have been teased, taunted, and excluded for being fat, or for being short, or for having freckles. In today's strange climate, who could be surprised to find government-funded schools specializing in any of those subsets of the population?

But not for Christians.

The tired argument is that to fund a Christian school (even indirectly, through vouchers) is to "establish a religion" in violation of the Constitution. But the folks who argue that way always fail to see the utterly religious nature of all education. To exclude one religion, simply because it defines itself in terms that sound "religious," while including other religions (like homosexuality) is prejudicial in an ultimate sort of way.

Who, after all, is a homosexual? Someone who defines himself or herself that way. That is the essence of such a person's being-by his or her own profession. That is the way that person says he or she wants to be known.

Christians should be treated the same way. If a homosexual (or an environmentalist or a lover of the arts) asks for and receives educational benefits from the state based on his own self-definition, no Christian should be excluded for doing the same.

The existence of the Harvey Milk School in New York might seem preposterous. On the other hand, the rationale that allows it might be just what's needed, in a bizarre manner no one could have predicted, to make the argument for economic justice for all in the area of education.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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