Op-Ed: Why Private School Vouchers Are Against My Religion

Teachers gather outside the Senate and House chambers during a teachers rally at the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, May 16, 2018. Thousands of teachers rallied the state capital seeking a political showdown over wages and funding for public school classrooms. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

By Rev. Suzanne Parker Miller

June 5, 2023

NC legislators have pushed for the privatization of education under a version of Christianity that is actually white supremacist Christian nationalism, a North Carolina pastor writes.

Public education in North Carolina is under attack from the state legislature and white supremacist Christian nationalists.

As a parent of two children in elementary school and a public education advocate, I speak up daily for the value and importance of public education in our state. But as a white pastor, it is especially critical that I also speak out now as to why public education is worth our collective public investment. Until we fully invest in public education for all children, we cannot consider expanding vouchers for a few. Period.

Republican leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly are defunding public schools through the state budget, massively expanding private school vouchers with public funding, and dismantling the state constitution (and thus our very democracy), by refusing to abide by the North Carolina Supreme Court Leandro decision.

In the Leandro case, the state’s highest court ruled multiple times over the past 29 years, most recently in November, that the NC constitution requires leaders to provide a “sound basic education” for every child. It is a right of every child in NC to receive a free public education.

Legislators have repeatedly and intentionally done the opposite, diverting money from the public school system into private schools, and violating their constitutional oath of office. North Carolina’s state funding effort is 50th in the nation.

The Comprehensive Remedial “Leandro” Plan was adopted by the courts in 2021 to provide a way to step up public education funding to meet the constitutional minimum, but the legislature has refused to implement it.

NC legislators have pushed for the privatization of education under the guise of a version of Christianity that is actually white supremacist Christian nationalism.

The Religious Argument for Public Schools

My love and support for public education comes from my faith in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and decades of studying the Christian New Testament and Hebrew Bible. Public education is a public good that is worth celebrating, because it strengthens our whole community and state (See Jeremiah 29:7). 

As Episcopal Priest Rev. Benjamin Campbell says of public schools, “No other social institution actively lives out the principle of God’s love for every human being.” Public schools must serve every child in every community. They cannot turn a child away for any reason (see Isaiah 1:16-17). Public schools have also become a main source of support for vulnerable children who often need care in the form of food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and other basic necessities–a reality we saw made visible during the pandemic (see James 2:14-18). 

Our public schools sit at the center of our communities and bring together people from all walks of life into one classroom to learn how to care for and respect one another (See Romans 12:9-21). Friendships across socio-economic and racial barriers are forged on the playground, and children learn new ideas as they share stories about their lives and experiences (See 2 Corinthians 9:7-15). Learning to love your neighbor as yourself is much easier when you actually get to know your neighbors and see their humanity and commonality (See Luke 10:25-37). Attending public schools with children who come from different backgrounds or speak different languages at home fosters kindness and compassion in our children and a curiosity to understand more about our shared world (See Matthew 25:34-40).

While I listened to the Scripture read from Acts 2 during Pentecost worship on a recent Sunday, I was reminded how the early disciples of Jesus Christ held all things in common and those for whom much was given shared what they had so that no one had need (See Acts 2:42-47). The resources to live and grow were seen as collective gifts of the community instead of individual possession to hoard. Their experience of the abundance of resources were shared so everyone could flourish, and the community’s health was measured by how well the vulnerable were cared for (See Matthew 14:13-21). We were reminded that “the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (See Galatians 5:22-23). Whether they are Christians or not, I see so many of our educators living out these fruit in their daily interactions with our children in their classrooms. One of the reasons educator burnout is so prevalent is because they try to continue to live out these fruit in their work with our children while policy makers cut educators’ resources and planning time and increase paperwork and meetings to promote the Legislators’ manufactured narrative that “public schools are failing” in order to push further privatization. Our educators are the scapegoats for legislative policy failures, and they deserve our admiration and respect reflected both in our words and living wages for their hard work (See Jeremiah 22:3).

Christian nationalism is co-opting the language of Scripture and Christianity to invoke a selfish and individualistic every-man-for-himself rhetoric around the fight over public education (See Philippians 2:1-4). Personal liberty and individual freedom are wrongly valued over and above the good of the community (see Acts 4:32-35). The value and worth of some already privileged children pushes our most vulnerable children further behind despite each child containing within themselves the imago dei, the image and spark of God (See Genesis 1:26-27). Resources and opportunities are hoarded that prevent the liberation and flourishing of all people (see Ephesians 4:28). Impoverished people are blamed for their condition. Rather, we should examine how individual and corporate greed requires poverty to exist (see Proverbs 22:22). While many of these attacks have been happening for decades in US history, the vitriol and multi-generational consequences of the current NC Legislature’s actions must be stopped before irreparable damage is done to our public education system. 

The damage schools are facing comes from systemic attacks and underfunding intended to push privatization. It turns education and our children into commodities. I have compassion for families who are so often stuck between a rock and a hard place, facing decisions as to where to send their child to learn and to flourish amid a system that is currently intentionally underfunded and harming the most vulnerable. Every family faces their own decisions and should be able to make those decisions for themselves. I do not fault their choices. Instead my concerns are about the well-being and full resourcing of the public education system that serves 80% of NC’s 1.5 million public school children to ensure each and every one receives equitable educational opportunities. Indeed it is good news that NC has the funding in reserves and no need to raise taxes to provide the bare essentials to our public schools through the Leandro Plan. Having the Legislature bring this reality to fruition would be good news for all NC families, especially our impoverished families (See Luke 4:14-21). I claim every single one of these 1.5 million children as my neighbor whom I am called to love, and it’s past time that our elected officials who represent us do too (Luke 10:37).

NC cannot expand vouchers until we fully meet our Leandro Plan investment. 

Here are five reasons why private school vouchers go against my Christian faith and democratic values.

  1. State provided funding for private religious schools violates the US Constitution’s First Amendment. By providing funding for religious education, the State is promoting a particular religion. Between 2014 and 2020, 92% of the vouchers used were spent at religious schools. A study of the curriculum used at voucher schools found that 77% used a biblical curriculum that promotes a literal biblical worldview that did not meet NC Standard Course of Study requirements for K-12 education and contained a “mix of narrow religious view, ideology and opinion, rather than the results of evidence-based scholarly research.” Their literal biblical worldview is not one I share given my years studying Scripture. 
  2. The history of school vouchers is rooted in racism and a push to maintain segregation in the wake of 1954’s Brown v. Board of Ed ruling. The creation of vouchers and the private, often religious, “segregation academies” that opened to shield white children from integration cannot be overlooked in this discussion. This practice was wrong then, and it is wrong today. Christianity is a religion based on love, and thus there is no place for discrimination of any sort in Christianity.
  3. Private schools are allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, and disability among other things. While vouchers were sold to the public as a solution for families of students with disabilities, private schools are not required to abide by Federal IDEA laws and are not required to meet IEP requirements. Many private Christian schools are housed in church buildings that are not required to meet ADA accessibility standards, so some children cannot even access the building to attend school. More subtly, private schools are not required to provide transportation or school meals, so these schools are not actually choices for all children. Vouchers allow the schools to pick their students instead of offering actual choice to families as they claim. 
  4. By expanding the private system for funding within NC, the state is further unable to meet its obligations to the public system. If only 50% of voucher recipients who use the new voucher expansion come from public schools to attend private schools instead, public school systems face losing $200+ million in funding. Studies from other states who have similar systems show that 75+% of voucher users come from within the private system already, so if this trend holds, public schools face losing substantially more funding. 
  5. Private school vouchers in NC come with no requirements for the school or educators to be accredited or prove they are providing a sound basic education to the children they serve. The lack of accountability for the school and educators allows our public funding to be used in ways that does not ensure the common good for the community’s children. If public funding is used for private schools, they should be held to the same standards as the public schools. 

Public education is a public good worth preserving and protecting. Public education supports our state’s economy and growth, and allows us to live into our Constitutional obligations. Public education, when it’s fully resourced and able to provide every child with the equitable educational opportunities that each child has a right to, will allow each child to flourish and live into their God-given potential, and I believe that is worth fighting for every single day.  

Pastors for NC Children has developed Mission Amplify, an advocacy curriculum for congregations to learn how to speak up in support of public schools. To learn more and sign up, visit http://PastorsForNCchildren.org


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