Education

To oppose school choice, Democrats attack religious freedom

January 24, 2023

Ray Carter

To combat the growing public demand for robust school choice in Oklahoma, Democratic lawmakers have filed bills that would infringe on Oklahomans’ First Amendment rights and impose regulations to make private schools less effective.

This year, lawmakers are expected to debate proposals that would allow Oklahoma parents to use tax dollars to pay for tuition at private schools. The proposals are similar to the existing Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program. Since 2010, the LNH program has allowed the families of students with special needs to use tax dollars to pay for private-school tuition.

School-choice opponents have responded by filing bills to cripple the effectiveness of private schools and school-choice programs, including the LNH program.

House Bill 1905, by state Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, says “private schools which receive state funds shall not use the state funds to provide religious instruction or religious activities.” The bill also says “students who receive state funds to attend private schools shall not be required to participate in religious activities including, but not limited to, prayer, chapel, and Bible study.”

In a release, Fugate said his bill would address “the concerns of those who fear school indoctrination.”

Similarly, House Bill 1341, by state Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, would require private schools whose students benefit from school-choice programs to operate under “the same laws, rules, regulations, and mandates prescribed for public schools.”

Much of the academic success achieved by private schools is credited to their ability to innovate and tailor instruction to student needs rather than abide by a one-size-fits-all framework imposed by state government in public schools. And for many families, the religious instruction provided at a private school is part of the school’s appeal.

On Twitter, Rosecrants tacitly acknowledged his legislation has no relation to academic quality, declaring the bill is only “a reminder that our public tax dollars belong in our public schools. Period.”

In addition to stripping private schools of the characteristics that make them appealing to many Oklahoma families, the two bills could increase the cost of private-school tuition by forcing private schools to operate more like public schools. Public schools often spend much more than private schools while getting worse academic results.

Nationally, the average per-pupil expenditure in public schools is 33 percent higher than private-school tuition. The same broad trend is notable in Oklahoma, where state records show that nearly all districts spend at least $10,000 per student with 171 public school districts having per-pupil funding greater than $14,000 apiece after accounting for all expenses, including facilities acquisition, construction services, debt service, and property expenditures. In contrast, Private School Review reports that the average private school tuition in Oklahoma is $6,576 per year for the current 2022-23 school year.

The bills also run counter to public opinion. According to a monthly tracking poll commissioned by EdChoice and conducted by the firm Morning Consult, 68 percent of Oklahoma parents support enactment of a voucher program that would allow them to use tax dollars to pay for private-school tuition, “including both religious and non-religious schools.” The poll found that 75 percent of Oklahoma parents support education savings accounts (ESAs).

The poll also found a strong majority of Oklahoma parents would choose an option other than their local public school if that were possible with 32 percent preferring a private school, 15 percent preferring homeschooling, and 8 percent preferring a charter school.

Notably, neither Fugate nor Rosecrants filed legislation to have the government micromanage private-sector vendors that receive taxpayer funding in other areas, such as health care (through Medicaid), grocery and convenience stores (through the food-stamp program) or college, where some state programs cover the cost of tuition at private universities.

The two bills continue recent Democratic efforts to attack and undermine the role of private schools in serving Oklahoma children.

In 2021, when the Oklahoma House of Representatives advanced legislation to prevent private schools from having to forgo their religious identities if they serve students whose tuition is covered through the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships program, Democrats attempted to amend the bill to ban Christian schools from serving students if the schools maintained their Christian identity.

The legislation also ignores numerous court rulings that have held there is no imposition of religious instruction on families who voluntarily choose to attend a religious school thanks to a state-funded program.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court, in a unanimous 2016 decision, held the LNH scholarship program was constitutional.

“When the parents and not the government are the ones determining which private school offers the best learning environment for their child, the circuit between government and religion is broken,” the justices stated (emphasis in original).

In 2020 the U.S. Supreme Court similarly upheld the constitutionality of state government programs that allow students to attend private schools, including schools with religious affiliations and missions. The court opinion stated, “We have repeatedly held that the Establishment Clause is not offended when religious observers and organizations benefit from neutral government programs.”

While some Democratic critics of school choice have claimed private religious schools engage in indoctrination, many of those same critics have defended public-school practices broadly criticized as inappropriate indoctrination.

In 2021, both Fugate and Rosecrants voted against House Bill 1775, which made it illegal for public-school officials to teach that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.”