The ‘technocrats’ need not fear religion

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius didn’t set out to make life hard on Catholic hospitals, and it is not difficult to imagine why a guardian of health would come down on the side of contraception. But New York Times columnist David Brooks makes an enticing point as he examines how technocrats, to use his term, tend to cower from complexity and run from religion. He sees those same behaviors tying President Obama in knots on school vouchers.

Wrote Brooks:

“The administration’s policies on school vouchers and religious service providers are demoralizing because they weaken this ecology by reducing its diversity. By ending vouchers, the administration reduced the social intercourse between neighborhoods. By coercing the religious charities, it is teaching the faithful to distrust government, to segregate themselves from bureaucratic overreach, to pull inward.”

The communities that a young Barack Obama organized are deeply tied to the church, and those church leaders provide a form of social ballast. Indeed, one of the reasons most of the private schools participating in voucher or tax credit scholarship programs across the country are faith-based is that one of the missions of these schools is to help children who are in social or financial or educational need. That aligns with the mission of most of these private-option programs.

Florida is certainly an example. The Tax Credit Scholarship is available only to students whose household income qualifies them for free or reduced-price lunch, or 85 percent above poverty, and the actual average income this school year is only 12 percent above poverty. In turn, roughly four-fifths of the 38,375 students this year attend faith-based schools.

That these schools are tied in some way to religion can indeed give technocrats serious pause. They think of a wall that is supposed to separate church and state, and forget that the Establishment Cause was prompted by fears not that the government would cooperate with religions but that it would allow for only one. We’re a pluralistic nation, and the participating Florida schools make that point emphatically:  Of the participating religious schools, 36 percent are nondenominational, 17 percent Catholic, 16 percent Baptist, 5 percent Seventh Day Adventist, 3 percent Pentecostal, 3 percent Jewish, and the rest representing at least nine other faiths.

These schools are a snapshot of our communities, just as Catholic hospitals are a part of the medical landscape. As long as the government isn’t forcing children to attend them and as long as the options are religiously diverse, then technocrats have nothing to fear. In fact, there is a persuasive constitutional argument that the government can’t offer options that exclude religious ones. More importantly, these kinds of learning options strengthen the public education quilt by adding pieces of community fabric that sometimes can play a constructive role in helping disadvantaged children learn. That’s certainly something community organizer Barack Obama can appreciate.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.