The Universal Notebook: LePage, Bowen let down public schools

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The LePage administration’s education agenda, it should come as no surprise to anyone, comes straight out of the ultra-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council playbook, by way of the ultra-conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, by way of the ultra-conservative Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen, who is former director of MHPC’s Center for Education Excellence.

The most dramatic proposal of the LePage education agenda, which in an act of Orwellian double-speak is called “An Act to Remove Inequity in the Funding of Certain Schools,” would remove the prohibition against supporting religious schools with public tax dollars.

The constitutional principle of the separation of church and state would seem to preclude funding private religious schools with public tax dollars, but parents in Maine towns without high schools who tuitioned their students into public and private schools were able to use tax money to send their kids to religious schools from 1903 to 1983. So there is precedent for sending tax dollars to religious schools in Maine.

But that doesn’t make it a good idea.

People who chose to send their children to private schools will often argue that it is not fair for them to have to pay taxes to support public schools from which they derive no benefit. That’s a specious argument. First, everyone in a civil society benefits from a system of public education. Second, it’s an argument that could be used by anyone who does not have children in school.

The reason to oppose “An Act to Remove Inequity in the Funding of Certain Schools,” however, is more political than economic.

While most Americans believe in the separation of church and state, the ultra-conservatives who are pressing fro public aid to religious schools (and other aspects of the LePage-Bowen educational agenda, such as open school choice) believe in the separation of school and state. It is their ultimate aim to turn education into a business run by churches and corporations. All you really need to know about the new breed of conservative activists is that they are pro-corporation and anti-government.

If Mainers approve public funding of religious schools (and open enrollment in the school of your choice), they will lose local control of education. And the last thing we need right now is a plan that will siphon off funding for public schools.

Fortunately, the proposal to fund religious schools with our tax dollars isn’t going anywhere. There’s simply no good reason to do it and plenty of reasons not to.

What I do see coming after the religious funding act fails, however, is a back-door attempt to do the same thing with tax credits. Eight states already have some form of tuition tax credits.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn that Arizona taxpayers who objected to their state offering tax credits to people who donate to school tuition organizations, which in turn provide scholarships to students who want to attend private or religious schools, have no legal standing and refused to hear the case.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito – the same five conservative activists who decided in Citizens United that corporations are people entitled to spend unlimited amounts of money on negative ads in an attempt to buy American elections – based their decision on the argument that there is a difference between a tax appropriation and a tax credit.

“This novel distinction in standing law between appropriations and tax expenditures has as little basis in principle as it has in our precedent,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent. “Cash grants and targeted tax breaks are means of accomplishing the same government objective – to provide financial support to select individuals or organizations. Taxpayers who oppose state aid of religion have equal reason to protest whether that aid flows from the one form of subsidy or the other. Either way, the government has financed the religious activity.”

I wish I could believe that LePage and Bowen are making a good-faith effort to improve public education in Maine, but I can’t. These are people who have no faith in public education.

Citizens United, Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization and now “An Act to Remove Inequity in the Funding of Certain Schools” are part and parcel of the same conservative plan to turn America over to private corporations. All the flag waving and freedom talk is just noise and distraction. Don’t let them take your tax dollars out of our public schools and spend it on their inferior religious schools.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.